The Boston Herald today kickstarted a local discussion about social networking at work. In usual tabloid fashion the Herald created a sensational story about the fact that some city employees, like Amy Derjue are updating their Facebook status from city-owned computers, some even going so far as *gasp* playing "Mafia Wars."
I had the chance to talk about this today on Greater Boston with Emily Rooney (video below).
It's easy to find people who will be outraged by this, saying "my gosh, how can people do that?!?" But honestly, if you think about it, the time it takes to update a status is little more than a few second out of every day.
From the macro-level, the idea of using employer resources (computers, internet access, etc.) for personal use is nothing new. But a spate of studies out recently try to make the point that social networking use at work reduces productivity, causing many to completely ban social networking.
The studies, such as the one from Nucleus Research making the argument that a few minutes a day on Facebook amounts to lost productivity, are based on the idea that if the people weren't on a social site then they would, by default, be productive. Anyone who has ever worked in an office can tell you that's simply not true. Also, it assumes that because of social sites that work isn't getting done.
Many of these companies also hand their employees Blackberries and laptops so they can work from home, on time that used to be called "personal time." The line between personal and work time are certainly blurred, so giving up a few minutes during the work day to Tweet or update Facebook certainly seems to be a fair trade-off.
This is, however, a management issue. If, as a manager you see that an employee isn't doing work, then it's your job to figure out why that work isn't getting done. If an employee spends an hour on the phone with their girlfriend everyday, do we take away their phone? Of course not, because it's a useful business tool. The same goes for social networking sites, they can offer a lot of value to organizations if used properly.
The answer is to work out a policy that clearly states what's accepted and what is not and also to have a little trust in the employees.
Today I heard about a running store called Greater Boston Running in which the owner, Steve Meinelt, has encouraged the employees to get on Twitter and Facebook. The employees, also runners, were given direction about how to search for the right discussions and interact with others, then told by the owner to "be smart" and not use this opportunity to fool around, but help the store.
In this instance social media is as much a part of their job as folding the shirts or stocking the shoes. Employees know not to get caught up on Facebook when they should be helping customers, they've learned a balance. The result is a few sales that have come through Twitter and even an increase in community. For example, if employees are going out for a run they'll tweet about it and some customers may come by to join them.
They managed to take the expertise of their workers and turn it into a marketing asset that extends well beyond the confines of the store.
Yes, there will be companies that work in fear and shut down access for a variety of reasons, including legal issues. That doesn't mean they'll cut off access, as many employees will simply pick up their mobile phones to do the same tasks.
However, I believe the CEOs at these same companies are turning to their communications teams and saying "how do we better utilize social media for marketing purposes?"
Truth is, they're probably shutting down the answer.