The influx of social media in our lives has reached saturation levels, gaining ground and permeating our daily lives. We tweet updates and announcements, we blog about dramatic and inane moments in our lives, and comment on current events on forums and news sites. We keep up with our friends and families on Facebook. We update our resumes on LinkedIn and watch webinars and join online groups.
With so much information on the web competing for our attention, are employees slacking off from having online freedom at work?
Firms have funneled millions of dollars in software to block their workers from idly watching YouTube videos, reading the news, visiting Facebook or Amazon, and even checking their personal e-mails. By keeping employers in a distraction-free zone on their computers, many companies believed they were enhancing productivity and saving themselves money. ** Good for business – the water cooler effect from web access**
Research has discredited the negative effects of employee internet activity. In several recent independent studies (University of Melbourne, New York University Stern School of Business to name a few), scientists have cited big gains in worker productivity when employees have access to the web. In Australia, participants who surfed the web no more than 20% of their time at work were tracked by researchers and were estimated to be 9% more productive than their counterparts with firewalls in place. According to the Melbourne scientists, “the activity helps keep the mind fresh and helps put you in a better place when you come back to working on topic”.
A University of Western Ontario study found that companies improved the creativity and problem-solving capabilities of their employees by giving access to multiple stimuli that improved mood— such as social networking sites. According to the researchers, “If you have a project where you want to think innovatively, or you have a problem to carefully consider, being in a positive mood can help you do that”.
Dangers lurking in unlimited access?
Still, many companies limit access to social networks and the web to avoid potential security breaches and losing control of information. Limiting activity can also be seen as a way for companies to avoid legal snafus. In 2003, Michael Hanscom an employee at Microsoft and part-time blogger posted a photo of Apple computers being delivered to a Microsoft loading dock. He found the picture ironic and thought he’d get a few laughs from fellow employees—only to find himself in the hot seat with management. He was later dismissed for violating employee codes of conduct regarding company loyalty. Companies also worry about inadvertent downloading of spyware and computer viruses and keep their office networks on lockdown.
The tides are turning though. StopBlocking.org spearheads a campaign designed to “end business blocking employee access to the Net” and offers itself as a hub for like-minded thinkers around the world. In a recent Market Tools survey of 1,268 professionals, 35% of respondents agreed that access to social media was a good way to communicate with colleagues, clients, and vendors. 25% actively used social media to build relationships and was as high as 37% in the 18-24 year old age group. Mimicking networking, 19% turned those online relationships into valuable business relationships.
Turning the tables: Companies encouraging collaboration and interaction over the web.
Several big blue chip companies like General Motors, IBM, HP, Infosys, Google, and Charles Schwab recently instituted corporate blogs and launched campaigns to encourage employees to participate. New York University researchers followed the blog posting and reading behavior of employees at a particular company over a year and discovered interesting patterns on work behavior. If the company set up restrictions on what topics to blog about (e.g. restricting employees to blog only about work-related matters), participation plummeted. Employees became more engaged when they could blog about both work and play. What they also found was that blogging activity diffused into real life. Conversations over blogs became conversations around the water cooler, during coffee and lunch breaks. Rather than costing the company productivity points, the blogging and web access prompted employees to interact more deeply with one another.
Even Microsoft, the epitome of corporate culture, has softened to the use of personal communication at work, stating that “we believe that social networking can also deliver real business value for all types of organizations.” They have recently released Outlook Social Connector, which allows companies to manage access to social networks for its employees. Rather than being used to block sites, it lets users add social networks and integrate them into their inboxes.
The verdict: Access to the web, particularly access to social networks and connecting with people beyond work-related matters— can push us to work together more productively.