Encouraging social web in the workplace may have side benefits

An article in the Harvard Business Review caught my eye.  It provided some evidence that allowing at least some social media employee freedom is good for the workplace

We all know by now that most organizations limit or frown upon the use of social media in the workplace. Leaders have nightmarish visions of their employees wasting hours on Facebook and Twitter. But this article states that reasonable employee use of social media has actually been shown to benefit companies. Here are three reasons to let your employees get connected:

  1. More attractive workplace. Many people, especially younger generations, see social media as a staple of work life and seek out employers who understand and acknowledge the critical role these new technologies play in our world.
  2. Improved productivity. Research has shown that employees who take breaks to surf the Internet for fun are ultimately more productive than their surf-adverse colleagues.
  3. More engaged workforce.  Employees not only appreciate companies that allow them to check Facebook at work, but they also use social media to connect with colleagues, improve communication, and speed up decision making processes — all of which helps them engage with their work and the organization.

Obviously this is a two-edged sword.  This topic came up during the Q&A session after a speech I gave last week and a riot almost broke out. Many employers have EXTREMELY strong, negative views on this issue.

This battle is going to become even more heated with the ubiquity of mobile applications.

What’s going on in your workplace?  What are your views?

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  • Hi Mark, great post! Each of your three points could easily become their own posts. I think we are entering an era where these things will increasingly become the norm rather than the exception. A truly great opportunity exists for employers who understand their business is not simply a vehicle for their own goals to be met but for their employees’ as well. If employers learn how to identify applicants with a sense of purpose in life and a decent degree of shared values, they can help help those people see their job as a platform for their life’s work. Employers who teach their employees how to use tools (including social media) to better accomplish their individual goals via their work will create a win/win/win situation for the employee, customers and the employer.

  • Even if we leave out the employees’ actual use of social media, employers who allow their use are probably more liberal in other respects as well.

    The fewer restrictions there are at the workplace, the better the working atmosphere. And the better the working atmosphere, the more conducive it is to achieving results instead of just spendig X hours a day in a cubicle.

    These days when the workforce is being downsized as far as possible, the increasing workload becomes more tolerable if employees have as few shackles as possible, and non-restrictive companies will be more attractive for job candidates.

    I also find this type of employer hostility slightly illogical. If they are afraid of employees squandering their time in the social web, why don’t they forbid the use of the internet altogether? It is quite as easy to become immersed in, say, Google searches and where they will take you.

    And what about other enabling technologies? Will the hostile employers forbid the use of cell phones as well? After all, the work-averse employee might be sending private messages during the oh-so-holy working hours.

    Long rant, sorry.

  • Mark

    @ Step — The wisdom you provide here extends to employee policies in general. If you treat people well and respect them, the benefits will be manifold.

    @Kimmo — Great to see you here today! The issue may seem illogical, but very real all the same. The Internet in general can be both a great productivity tool and the world’s biggest time-waster. Somewhere in there you probably need to have a policy for those who would abuse the privilege. It’s bound to happen but it’s probably also worth the risk to open up.

  • I agree, the risk is worth taking. If goals are met, it doesn’t matter how the people divide their time. I think the freedom and the resultant boost in motivation and commitment will compensate for the waste of time.

    Of course, there will always be employees who just spend the required hours at work. If HR departments know what they’re doing, they should be able to either motivate such people to contribute more or weed them out over time. I would even argue that inefficiencies can largely be attributed to incompetent HR.

  • If any communications medium is abused it reduces effectiveness; if it is used responsibly, it increases effectiveness. So the trick is to employ people who know the difference – and the people who ‘get’ this distinction are members of the Facebook generation. So the more tolerant you are as an employer, the more likely you are to have people who use it responsibly. I’d be willing to bet the nay-sayers would think otherwise though…

  • It has always been my opinion that the “lost productivity” argument is complete bull. Employees often need a small distraction to break the monotony of what they are doing and will take it any form whether it is Twitter, FB or, if not allowed, hanging out by the water cooler.

    In the worst case, where employees are spending a lot of time on social media, it’s the employer’s fault for not holding those same employees accountable for getting X accomplished on any given day. Bored employees need something to pass the day other than watching the clock.

  • Mark

    @ Kimmo — Honestly, I usually come down on the side of tougher policies but I’m probably in the minority. Studies are showing the addictive nature of the social web (instant gratification) and the best HR people in the world probably can’t guard against that. The best you can do is have a clear policy with consequences, IMHO. However you have a valid point and are probably in the majority.

  • Mark

    @John B — Great point — connecting this issue to hiring practices in the first place. You are the man.

    @Johnny — The “pause that refreshes” is one of the strongest arguments for allowing this in the workplace. A lot of people can be refreshed by a little YouTube. I’m one. Keyboard cat is my drug of choice. This is great as long as people don’t turn it into a career : )

  • I had to smile a little at the 3 reasons to let your employees get engaged in SM. There are still a majority of business leaders that don’t really “get” Twitter or FB as a contributor to achieving any goals or objectives. I hear it all the time from my clients. Personally, I believe they are wrong so that means we have to do a better job of exhibiting the value.

    What I have noticed, is that some business executives are assigning a very select group of managers to check out Twitter and/or Facebook, however, they are not giving them the time to do so. If they are in sales, they are still doing the same old cold calls, etc.

    Personally, employers are being somewhat short-sighted regarding Social Media but that is probably the way they have set forth objectives and results in the past. When we can get them to move forward out of the past and into the present, and only then, will they embrace SM. I mean, executives are writing policy all the time. Go forth and manage…..write policy and enforce it….management/leadership skills are a commodity in an organization…use it.

  • OK, this won’t contribute to the conversation but had to share. I read your first bullet and must have been dyslexic as thought “Workplace” was “People”. I started tweeting more but it wasn’t helping. Good thing I re-read this.

  • Mark

    @ Diane — Well aren’t you feisty today! : ) All great points. You’re right, most don’t get it. I have been giving a talk lately with the theme “DEAL WITH IT!” Seems to be shaking things up around here.

    At the end of the day, it gets down to company culture. I cut folks slack. When they say “my management won’t go for this” they’re probably right! So I encourage them to take small steps that can be successful within the culture that they have.

    Thanks for the GREAT insights today!

  • Mark

    @ Marc Maybe too many blows to the head, friend? have you been dodging Nepalese ninjas again?

  • Yes Mark. You pressed a “button”. 🙂 I try to remember to say that some just don’t “understand” ….yet. When you get questions like “Who invented Twitter anyway?” ~or~ “I don’t need to know someone is going for coffee!” ~or~ “We have nothing to blog about” when they are one of the largest non-profits in the area….it does get more than frustrating and you just gave me the perfect venue to vent! Thanks.

    Uh! Oh! I have more to say. Just kidding! Thx for the venue to vent Mark.

  • Now you have really opened up a great topic along with a big can of worms. I am a complete convert. As someone that believes in deep, deep focus and concentration while being paid a lot of money for what you think more than what you do, it used to drive me crazy to see our younger staff distracted by their various social toys. Now I know better and now I understand. As Kimmo says, it’s really about meeting goals or not. Let me just say our policy is now wide open and we trust everyone to be balanced and professional in their use of time and we are more productive than ever.

  • Mark

    Billy — With this kind of open and trusting attitude, you’re sure to engender employee loyalty. I’m wondering, do you have any policy at all? Or is having no policy the new policy?

    Diane — Sounds like you’ve just written your next blog post!

  • Kate Voth

    Great points made here. Totally cutting off access to social media sites is not the answer–it could be a temp fix for a corporation’s fear of losing control, but this policy cannot hold & will not benefit the workplace in the long term.

    As John said, the key is to get employees to understand the difference in how SM platforms can be used for good (or bad) in the workplace. Educating employees on the potential benefits of these tools and how to properly use them is a must. A social media policy should also be in place so that if employees choose to engage on these sites, they are doing so in a way that neither reflects negatively on the workplace nor hurts employees’ productivity. Education + freedom = a better environment and better business.

  • Mark

    @ Kate. I couldn’t agree more. Asses your situation, implement appropriate guidelines. Thanks!

  • Stefan Lindegaard wrote this (link above):

    …innovation is what drives business success in the 21st century, right? Well, sort of. While corporate leaders may intellectually accept the need for innovation and promote their commitment to innovation at every opportunity, many really don’t get it. As a result, they can become a major roadblock …

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