48 HR Magazine November 2017
and creating a lot of competition. In fact, The Wall Street Journal
recently declared that group chat will be “the defining turf war
of the next decade” among tech vendors.
That’s not surprising, as group chat may allow for more-effec-tive and more-efficient interactions, particularly among remote
workers. But, like all technologies, it has drawbacks as well as
advantages—and HR should play a key role in
guarding against the potential pitfalls of online
chat. The casual nature of this form of communication can lull employees into making off-color
comments that could be construed as harassment,
for example. And the always-on presence of the
platform can be distracting and overwhelming. Workers may feel compelled to respond to
a stream of never-ending requests and questions
at the expense of tending to more-important priorities, which can fuel the symptoms of burnout.
The roots of group chat go back to the early days
of the Internet in the 1990s, when people used
a system called Internet Relay Chat to facilitate
real-time, virtual communication, says Alan
Lepofsky, vice president and principal analyst at
Constellation Research, a technology research
and advisory firm in San Francisco. It has been
gaining ground ever since. A few years ago,
“Slack started to catch on and got lots of media
attention,” he says. “Now everyone’s talking
about group chat.” Major players in the market include:
• Skype for Business.
• Google Hangouts.
• Microsoft Teams.
• Workplace by Facebook.
• IBM Watson Workspace.
• Cisco Spark.
Independent statistics documenting the growth of group chat
are hard to come by. Slack claims that its number of daily active
users rose from 500,000 in 2015 to 5 million in 2017. In a survey
of I T professionals this year by Spiceworks, a social network for
techies, 42 percent said their companies were using group chat
and more indicated that they were looking to adopt it. Skype for
Business is the most common collaborative app used by U. S. companies, according to Spiceworks. Within t wo years, an additional
11 percent of respondents plan to deploy the Skype product, and
another 17 percent expect to introduce Microsoft Teams. Among
large corporations, 53 percent currently use group chat.
What’s Driving the Conversation?
Most vendors in the chat marketplace offer free, basic versions of
their products, so anyone can simply sign up and start a group.
Some chat vendors charge extra per user for premium versions,
which include security features and administrative controls. Hip-
Chat, for example, has a monthly fee of $2 per user.
Technologically savvy departments within companies are
often the first to adopt the programs. Then other groups follow
suit—sometimes without HR’s or IT’s knowledge. Even in the
most buttoned-down corporations that use only enterprise-grade
software from large, traditional vendors, “there’s a good chance
that your engineers are using these tools” on their own, says Josh
Bersin, principal and founder of Bersin by Deloitte, Deloitte Con-
sulting LLP, based in Oakland, Calif.
Chat is also the favored tool of Millennials, many of whom
view e-mail as so last century. “They think it’s slow and cumber-
some,” says Andee Harris, chief engagement officer with High-
Ground, a Chicago-based employee engagement company that
uses Slack. “They are used to using chat to communicate.”
It also fits today’s cooperative work style better than e-mail
because it allows for fluid, real-time discussions, Bersin says. You
can send an e-mail out to a group, he explains, but when all those
people start commenting, you’re quickly buried in a mountain
of cc’d messages with no good way to pull them together into a
“The reason [group chat] has taken off is that we don’t work
in hierarchies anymore,” Bersin says. “These tools reflect the
It goes by many names: collaborative business chat, chat-based
workspace, workstream collaboration tool, workplace application
messaging, team messaging, digital workspace and even unified
communications. Whatever it’s called, group chat includes some or
all of these features:
■ ■ Text-based messaging among a defined group of people.
■ ■ Virtual chat rooms, or channels, for ongoing conversations about
specific topics. These can be public and open to everyone or private
and accessible by invitation only.
■ ■ File and screen sharing.
■ ■ Videoconferencing.
■ ■ The ability to sync with all devices, including laptops, tablets and
■ ■ Integration with other types of software.
What Is Group Chat?