Should We Really Be Texting for Work? – The New York Times

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Work has already invaded our homes, evenings and weekends. Now it’s coming for the fun part of your phone.

Callie Holtermann prefers to be contacted via email.
Jake Dunlap texts his wife. He texts his pickleball group chat. And in the past five years, he has started texting his co-workers.
Mr. Dunlap, 43, the chief executive of a consulting company in Austin, Texas, has asked colleagues not to overdo it on the work texts. Yes, they get his attention quickly, and yes, they’re an effective way to reach him after hours. But he is concerned that each buzz erodes the digital boundary between work and everything else. “Text is kind of the final frontier of personal space,” he said.
Brace your thumbs for the era of the work text: The blue bubble has put on its best business-casual and joined email and Slack in the sprawling digital workplace.
Its arrival has been polarizing. Fans of the work text consider it productive, even collegial; to detractors, it’s outright invasive. The medium is loved and feared for its immediacy, and the way that it invites co-workers into something like the inner sanctum of our digital lives.
Until fairly recently, text was the most intimate of our inboxes, home to friends and family and the occasional “U up?” (“Sext” didn’t become well-worn slang for nothing.) That inbox has been breached by a surge of advertisers, spam, messages from political campaigns and — least sexy of all — six-digit verification codes.
Work may be among its most determined invaders. More than 40 percent of workers use text messaging on their personal phones to communicate for work purposes, according to the economic research organization WFH Research, which surveyed more than 6,000 Americans in May.
Nick Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford who worked on the study, said that the pandemic may be to thank. As many employees worked from home, companies relied on layers of digital communication software to keep them in touch: Zoom on top of email on top of Microsoft Teams on top of Slack. The result was a series of noisy digital inboxes all competing for workers’ attention.
Texting, which we use to maintain our closest social bonds, was a reliable way to cut through. Ninety-seven percent of text messages are opened within 15 minutes, according to a report from Insider Intelligence, a research firm. “I may interrupt a meeting if I have a text, because my kids text,” Dr. Bloom said. “I would never interrupt a meeting for an email.”
Texting has grown in importance since the first SMS, or short messaging service, greeting was sent by a 22-year-old engineer in 1992. In 2010 it overtook the phone call as the preferred method of communication between teenagers and their friends.
Those teenagers have aged into a professional generation more reliant on texting. Ashlyn Shadden was a high schooler in the early 2000s when she got her first cellphone, a pink Nokia that she mostly used to text her boyfriend. Ms. Shadden, 34, who now runs a clothing boutique in St. Jo, Texas, said she had noticed that a lot of other people around her age prefer to do business over text.
Ms. Shadden was once texting a vendor about restocking some clothing items when she got a picture of the vendor’s dog, with an explanation that the dog would soon be put down.
“I’ve never met her, and she’s never met me,” she said. “When you are texting with someone just businesswise, it still has the possibility of that getting a little more personal.”
Matt Wheatley, 32, who lives in Manhattan and works at a legal-tech company, is a fan of the work text because it allows him to build a quicker, looser rapport with his business contacts. His texts to them are peppered with “hahaha,” “lol” and emojis. “The little fire emoji is pretty work-safe,” he said.
Work texts can easily veer into uncomfortable or invasive territory.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, more clients have asked Lauren Young Durbin, a career coach in Richmond, Va., how to keep their co-workers from texting them too much. Workers give out their personal phone numbers in an effort to seem friendly and accessible, she said, then come to regret it once they realize the nozzle cannot be turned off.
Gabrielle Blackwell, 32, who works in sales for a software company in Austin, tries to keep business conversations confined to work-specific channels like Slack and email.
Ms. Blackwell had first been flattered when a boss at a previous job had wanted to communicate with her via text. She soon discovered her supervisor had “no boundaries” and would text her for input incessantly, with questions beyond her job description. “Once they had my number, they felt like they could reach out to me any time,” she said. “That was a very unhealthy situation.”
Others text in an effort to avoid monitoring by employers, which often use productivity-monitoring software to keep tabs on what their workers are saying. Although companies cannot access text messages as easily as emails or Slack messages, Ms. Young Durbin reminds clients that text messages can be made public — with major career consequences.
She pointed to Tucker Carlson, who parted ways with Fox News not long after some of his private texts were released in a legal filing. Elizabeth Holmes, Anthony Weiner and Tom Brady are among those whose text messages have been made public, with legal or reputational repercussions.
All the workers interviewed for this article offered their own suggestions for preventing work from overwhelming their text inboxes, and by extension, their lives. Mr. Dunlap tries to respond only to time-sensitive text messages from co-workers. Ms. Young Durbin tells clients to establish “texting hours” when they give out their phone numbers. Ms. Shadden has thought about getting a second phone to be used just for work.
Dr. Bloom emphasized that just because you can reply to a work text at any time of the day or night does not mean that you should. “Imagine you’ve had two or three glasses of wine,” he said. If you flub a response to your boss while inebriated, he said, “you’re in trouble.”
Those suggestions might help some workers fortify their inboxes. They also might be Band-Aids for the larger issue of work’s overreach into our personal lives, said Anne Helen Petersen, the writer of the newsletter Culture Study and an author of “Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working From Home.”
Email and Slack once dangled the possibility of seamless connection before workers, only to end up tethering them more closely to ever-present digital desks, she said. By giving us the illusion that we can work and relax simultaneously on a trip to the gym or a midafternoon walk, text, too, might be further entangling our work and personal lives. “The fact that there is no mode of communication that is immune from work is a testament to the fact that work is so central in American life,” she said.
Even Ms. Petersen, who has spent much of her career examining the swelling of the workplace, has not been spared. This summer she read aloud a text she had just gotten from a producer of her podcast, explaining a small mix-up: “I feel so awkward omg.”
Callie Holtermann joined The Times in 2020. More about Callie Holtermann


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