Skype (which was purchased by Microsoft in 2007) has recently announced that its audio and chat functions are now integrated into Microsoft’s Office Online and OneDrive - in the words of the company “bringing your Skype experiences together with activities like email and other online services, so that you can get things done faster”. One of the key benefits of this new integration is that it enables people to collaborate while talking about certain documents (be they emails or documents in Word, PowerPoint or Excel) as they are created, as well as those opened up from Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud storage. In addition, the chat log feature stays linked to any document or email that people have collaborated on, allowing people to continue working on a document later, as well as look back and see why changes were made.
For businesses, using Skype or other instant messaging applications such as Slack can make it easier for colleagues to interact and collaborate regardless of their location, making home working more feasible and attractive. It also means people can have one contact address for webcam chats, messaging, email and phone calls. However, businesses need to be mindful of the potential risks too.
One such issue is data protection – businesses need to ensure that their employees’ personal data (information about someone who can be identified from that data) is processed in accordance with the Data Protection Act. Personal data might be found in emails, instant messages or internet logs and can include, by way of example, details about a named employee’s salary or an email about an incident involving a particular employee. Businesses whose staff communicate via Skype or other instant messaging platforms need to ensure that all such personal data generated is kept securely. Having a data protection policy in place can go some way in managing this risk.
In addition, the increasing use of instant messaging and other informal methods of communication could also expose employers to a higher risk of grievances and claims from employees who are not happy with the way they have been treated at work. If an employee does bring a claim then an employer will be required carry out a reasonable search for (and disclose to the employee and Employment Tribunal) all documents and records that are relevant to the case, which may mean an employer has to trawl through a large number of instant messages and Skype logs as well as the employee’s emails and personnel file which may uncover evidence that is damaging to the employer’s defence. Businesses should ensure that they have equal opportunities, disciplinary and grievance policies in place to make clear to everyone the standard of behaviour that is expected, as well as how grievances and misconduct will be handled. Accurate notes should also be taken during all formal meetings (even those conducted via Skype) to ensure that there is evidence of what was said, in case this is later disputed.
That said, most businesses will likely relish the opportunity to increase communication, flexibility and collaborative working which these advances will bring.