Social networks are undeniably a double edged sword, both from an employer and employee perspective. Businesses are increasingly seeing the need to establish some kind of social network presence. Whether or not they know anything beyond the fact they ‘need’ social media is open for debate, but the fact remains: in most businesses, social media usage is welcomed with open arms. With a growing population of smart-phone users, and the increasing availability of iPhone-style apps on cheaper phones and tariffs, social media has become a near-default method of communication for many. Why text or call from your phone when you can freely send a multi-recipient message, perhaps even to more than one platform or just to the world in general?
This naturally creates a conflict. Private phone usage is barred or ‘emergency only’ in most offices: it’s disruptive and not a valid use of company time. But since access to Social Media websites is normally unrestricted (because as we’ve established, businesses need social media, or think they do) this leaves an open access point for private communication. Indeed, because such services are usually left running, it’s not easy for systems administrators to keep an eye on whether an employee is using Facebook, Twitter and their like unsuitably. The decision is essentially between banning all use and leaving the channel open, extremes that are both undesirable.
Personally, I’m speaking from the perspective of someone who doesn’t use social networking platforms with any unusual regularity. Despite being surrounded by people who do, I cannot profess to being particularly annoyed with how Social Media is used in my workplace, as it frequently is. It seems to me that any office with a decent work ethic and daily reporting structure needn’t view social media with suspicion. If the work is being done, and it is being done to a high standard, tying the tongues of diligent workers isn’t going to make them work any better. In fact, it could make them less productive.
It’s important here to re-examine why people feel the need to communicate with the outside world on company time. I think that when it comes down to it, Social Media in the workplace has replaced private communication less than it has replaced the ‘water-cooler’ conversation. The inane chatter of colleagues who aren’t reluctant to continue working, but simply want a brief time out. Whilst employees can undoubtedly talk to excess through social media, they could do the same around the water cooler, coffee machine or smoking area. Ultimately, these people will be accountable when they turn in rushed or unfinished work, whereas the whole reason someone else is capable of turning in a decent amount could be their self-moderated use of social media.
Beyond the issue of how and when a person is posting, there’s the problem of what they’re posting. We’ve all heard the horror stories of employees losing their jobs over Facebook statuses that prove the fabrication or irresponsible source of their illness. But when the link between an employee and their employer is widely known, employees can post defaming, libelous remarks that attract bad press and even legal action. From a career perspective, employees should already know that it’s advantageous to have personal and professional personas in social media. Many people already use Facebook for the former, and Twitter for the later. You should flat out never ‘friend’ someone on Facebook if they’re in a senior position to you (hopefully, most people are over the supposed ‘snub’ that Facebook friend refusals no longer are).
However, using Twitter for purely professional means doesn’t really use the service to its full potential, and being an interesting Twitter voice often includes generating discussion that is (strictly speaking) unprofessional. Having two accounts should be encouraged: one visibly engaged with the company and industry (but approached with caution) and a personal account which is less visibly associated with a workplace, through which any reasonable opinion can be voiced.
The bottom line is that social media has an ambiguous but necessary role in businesses. New technology and social situations inevitably breed workplace inefficiency, but combining the two doesn’t make the problem any more pronounced. And the root of the problem is your hiring practices and workload accountability. Bad employees will out themselves sooner or later, and the social media office witch-hunt is completely unnecessary.
Steph Wood is a copywriter currently working for a company that operates a Serviced Office London. They blog regularly on technology, gaming and entertainment subjects.
Ad: Start your taxes today with Turbo Tax 2010.