The True Dangers Of Allowing Social Media In The Workplace

This blog post was originally written for KPMG and was posted at CloudTweaks.com.

Would you let your employees use social media on company time? The response to this question is usually an emphatic no. The reasons given make sense, at least on the surface: “People are here to work, not to play.” “We cannot trust our employees to not waste the entire day playing around online.” “The optics would be very bad for our customers.”

Indeed, people are hired to contribute their skills for the advancement of their employer. But there is a significant distinction between time spent at the desk and actual productivity. The end results of a task assignment are not a factor of the amount of time spent in front of a computer screen, but the quality of the effort exerted by the individual. That can vary greatly depending on time of day, stress levels, even what the employee ate for breakfast.

Productivity is a result of physiology, not of face time.

The Health Aspect

Access to social media during the workday offers at least one improvement, and that is in the area of mental focus and stamina. The human mind and body were never designed to work at a consistently high level of output for a sustained number of hours. We just cannot do that. Instead, we work best in bursts of energy punctuated by rest. By visiting a favorite social media site for just a couple of minutes per hour, employees benefit from a rhythm that feeds the mind and allows for greater amounts of productivity, accuracy, and creativity.

The crux of the issue becomes one of definition: what does “access” mean? Those who push back against the idea of social media in the workplace maintain a perception that employees will spend their entire day with one eye on their favorite web site, and their attention permanently divided. But that‘s not the only way. Companies that have succeeded in allowing social media into the workplace are those that have established a “best practice,” such as allowing just a few minutes per hour, with the employee accepting the responsibility of returning to work without needing to be told.

This brings forth two profound benefits.

The first is that this type of mental break fits in with the body’s natural rhythms and the individual employee’s personal attention span. Some people have attention spans of an hour or more, and can work for extensive periods. Most however have a limit that is well inside a one hour block, and exceeding it simply results in distraction, delay and/or procrastination.

Secondly, allowing access contributes to employee engagement and loyalty, whereas an outright ban damages the trust relationship. Employees like to feel respected, and being locked out of social media simply results in diminished motivation paired with an increased desire to move to greener pastures.

There is also a growing demand for employee wellness and work-life integration. With recent discoveries demonstrating that sitting for long periods per day presents the same types of health dangers as smoking and overeating, the pressures mount on employers to offer a balanced working environment, and this includes mental health as much as physical.

The Literacy Aspect

The term “literacy” in the current era encompasses more than just reading and writing. It involves the intellectual ability to parse information; to sort through huge amounts of incoming data, to determine what is relevant and what is not. People who are capable of doing this become capable of handling the high-speed, multi-level pressures of the modern workplace. Those who can produce the work required of them while having access to social media are generally going to be more agile and productive employees. For them, deprivation leads to distraction and frustration. The multimedia workplace is actually where they thrive.

The Optics

What about what the customers might think? If a customer walked through the office, and if they were to see a computer screen that had a social media site on it, what would they think of the organization? This is a matter of great concern for employers. However, more and more businesses are answering this question by pointing to the quality of their products and their customer service. A growing number of modern businesses are succeeding not by caging employees, but by letting them live “free range,” working according to their personal and physiological needs. Customers need to experience– if they have not already– that environmental amenities such as social media contribute to quality rather than detract from it. And that is what customers seek.

It is a natural response from business owners to envision the risks in every new development that comes along. But so, too, their capacity for steering their company through the wind and waves of the marketplace demand agility and awareness. This includes recognizing the benefits in an upgraded workplace – one  that  includes access to social media.

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