Letting employees loose on social media

There’s been a considerable debate recently about the way company’s and their employees should interact with social media. This debate is made more complicated by the fact that it is really two inter-related arguments. One debate is about the affect of social media on employee productivity. The other is about the dangers and opportunities of employee activists.

Social media and productivity

The truth is we live in a rapidly changing world in which many old ways of doing things are losing relevance. Over half of US companies block the use of social media sites on their computers, and yet how many of their employees have a smartphone? Most of them probably. In an era in which it is not uncommon for the parents and even grandparents of Gen Y to use smartphones, tablets and Facebook. Unless business leaders are going to start confiscating smartphones (perhaps with the proviso that they ‘can have them back at the end of the day’) it is going to be futile to attempt to halt all social media interactions while at work.

Futhermore, a University of Melbourne study has found that employees who have access to social media sites are in fact more productive than the employees of those companies which block social media. Now, it might be too soon to pronounce the final word on this issue, but there could be two, not exclusive hypotheses for this. These results could be explained by the fact that it allows employees to use social media as a reward to incentivize themselves. It could also be that in a workplace that increainsgly requires creative work, a more relaxed, less pressured environment could help to encourage creative work. The latter is the idea proposed in Dan Pink’s famous Ted Talk. As Dan Pink points out the way in which incentives and workplaces are best structured depends on the type of work being done. For work in which repetition plays the largest component, it is best to structure workplace practices around efficiency. This may be why it may make sense for a Midwestern credit union, where the performance of their tellers has been detrimentally affected by the interuptions from phone calls and Facebook, to consider banning cell phones. Whereas for a high-tech startup in California it may make more sense to create a less pressured environment to let their employees perform at their best. Clearly there is going to have to be conversation within every company to find the right balance for its own context.

And finally for those employees for whom social media has become a genuine time-wasting distraction, Shel Holtz, of Holtz Communication + Technology, writes that those employees who waste time on Facebook or Twitter would likely find other ways in which to waste time even if social media sites were blocked. ‘There will always be employees who waste time. There always have been, long before computers were introduced to the workplace. Addressing this problem is a management issue, not a technological one. (Does anyone really think that somebody genuinely wasting time on MySpace is suddenly going to become a shining example of productivity because IT blocked access?) Supervisors need to manage by exception those employees whose use of social networks genuinely is affecting their productivity.’

 Social media, employees and reputation management

Now, to get to the second debate. This centers around the discussion about whether allowing empoyees to be the face of your company through social media is a boon or a menace. This quot  from Warren Buffet summarizes one side of this dilemma: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it”. Do you see the debate from the point of view that your employees sharing your company narrative through social media is a key step to building a solid reputation with your consumers? Perhaps you see it as a great way of sharing company vision and engaging with your target audience? Or do you think that the riss of employee ‘activism’ far outweigh any potential benefits?

“Employees Rising: Seizing the Opportunity in Employee Activism” a recent study of over 2000 employees conducted by Weber Shandwick claims to have uncovered a new social trend in ’employee activism’. The study claims that around half of employees post images or comments about their workplace on social media. And the report claims that of these two thirds present a positive image of the firm. The flipside though is that over 15% of employees share negative thoughts about their employers online. The key to channeling positivity into employees’ online activism is supportive and inspiring leadership. As Kate Bullinger, co-lead, global employee engagement at Weber Shandwick says, “As employee activists gain numbers and strength, organizations need to be prepared to facilitate the activism of these employees, company storytelling is not just for external media anymore; it’s a way of ensuring that employees are informed and have something meaningful to say about their employers”.

The way that consumers and corporations operate in the age of smartphones and pervasive social media is still being negotiated. It presents new problems and a new opportunities, and our knowledge of the issue will only get more sophisticated as the dialogue continues.

We’d love it if you joined this dialogue to share your experiences and perspectives on this topic. Get involved through the comment section or find us on Twitter.

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