Long Read  

Is there a place for WhatsApp in the workplace?

Is there a place for WhatsApp in the workplace?
WhatsApp and Telegram were among the most downloaded apps in Q1 2022. (Brent Lewin/Bloomberg)

In September 2022 the US Securities Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission reached settlements totalling around $1.8bn (£1.4bn) with 12 of Wall Street’s leading investment banks.

The prominent institutions, which included Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, were penalised for failing to monitor employees’ use of unauthorised messaging apps, like Whatsapp, with colleagues and clients.

The probe followed on from JP Morgan’s $200mn fine in December 2021, with the floodgates apparently opening. Authorities seem to have used that initial $200mn settlement figure as a yardstick for the industry, signifying the end of an unofficial grace period afforded to firms adapting to the pandemic. 

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Such monumental penalties have of course had a seismic impact on the financial services landscape, with the repercussions reaching far beyond the behemoths evidently being made an example of. But how did we get to this stage, and how can firms address the employee behaviours that are clearly no longer going to be tolerated?

What’s up with WhatsApp?

A smartphone screen displays the logo of the mobile application WhatsApp

The SEC mandates that banks maintain records of all communication between clients and brokers. Private exchanges, like those occurring through WhatsApp, are far more difficult to monitor, and the likelihood of data being compromised only increases as personal devices are introduced to the equation.

It is important to note that the issue here is not with WhatsApp itself; the same concerns apply with WeChat, Telegram, and other ephemeral messaging apps. It is the difficulties in documenting communications on these encrypted platforms and the subsequent contravention of record-keeping requirements that are problematic.

Phone call fatigue

Until relatively recently, consumers had limited options available to them if they wanted to reach out to a regulated firm. To discuss their bank account, for instance, they would need to either get on the phone or head over to their local branch for a personal discussion.

Now, they are able to communicate with the organisation through a multitude of digital channels.

It is not just an option, but a preference. WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Telegram were among the most downloaded apps in Q1 2022, and WhatsApp itself has an astronomical 2bn active users worldwide.

According to Forbes, 93 per cent of US consumers want to communicate via text message, with speed, ease of use and (consumer) familiarity with the platforms proving decisive advantages. 

This works both ways; it is also easier and more efficient for employees to communicate through tools that they are familiar with using in their day-to-day life than one provided by their employer.

Remote channels

The disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic led to far greater reliance on messaging apps, as physical proximity, even with colleagues, was prohibited. In 2019, 68.1mn US mobile phone users accessed WhatsApp to communicate. This figure is projected to grow to 85.8mn users in 2023.