The social-media revolution is seeping into the workplace, and employers are nervous. According to social-web blogger David Armano, approximately 70% of organizations ban social networks. USA Today reports a lower amount, but still: An Oct. 22 survey shows 54% of businesses are banning social media from the workplace. Fears about decreased productivity and/or risk exposure seem to be resulting in censorship within workplaces.
Of course, banning social media is simply a bad idea. Many agencies report partnering with marketing clients to develop social-media strategies only to discover that clients themselves are unable to access key sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, from their work computers. Marketers are at a clear disadvantage when they don't have first-hand usage, insight and experience with social-media channels.
Allowing employees to access social media could actually result in many other benefits for the employer:
Team-building and camaraderie
U.S. employers spend billions on employee team-building activities like picnics, holiday parties and other exercises. Allowing employees to participate in the virtual water-cooler dialogue of social media gives them a chance to bond and find subjects with which they can relate to one another, free of cost to the employer. Studies show the main reason employees stay in jobs (or leave jobs) is based on their level of satisfaction with co-worker relationships. Social media enables employees to find a common bond and enhance the relationships with colleagues.
Productivity benefits from brain breaks
A Discovery magazine article reports that neuroscientists at MIT have confirmed that taking breaks helps us learn and be more productive. A 2006 study observed rats pausing after exploring an unfamiliar maze. The neuroscientists theorized the rats were using the break to re-trace their steps in the maze for memor purposes -- thus leading to better productivity during the next maze run. Another example: Educators can confirm first-hand the benefits of sending students to recess -- and the chaotic results if kids don't get their downtime.
Social media is the equivalent of workplace recess. Mind breaks lead to employee satisfaction and better productivity. This results in increased morale, reduced employee stress, low absenteeism and more engaged, healthier employees. All of these employee traits help the bottom line.
Social media can serve as a virtual think tank. If an employee is embarking upon a new project and needs advice from her peers, it's as easy as posting a question to their social networks. Many professional groups are established on LinkedIn or Facebook and offer a venue for discussion and the opportunity to post specific questions. Polls and surveys enable virtual focus groups. Employees can easily follow subject-matter experts on a site like Twitter for an RSS-like feed of relevant content. While many companies offer organized mentoring programs, with social media employees can choose their own online advisor for guidance and knowledge sharing.
Trust and transparency
If Facebook were a country, it would be the fourth largest. In September 2009, Facebook reached over 300 million active users. Gen Y-ers continue to rely less on e-mail and more on social media to communicate. Banning employees from this widespread communication tool is akin to telling your employees they can't use the phone for personal calls or e-mail friends and family. It's a signal your company is oppressive and in the Dark Ages. With the sale of smartphones on the rise, it's likely that employees would access their social-media sites on mobile devices anyway -- creating an environment of concealment and mistrust.
Allowing employees to access social media communicates: "We trust you're mature and know when enough is enough." For employees that do abuse their time on social media, managers and HR departments should address the issue on an individual level -- similar to any other performance problem like absenteeism, low productivity or work quality.
Just as many brands are monitoring customers to address satisfaction issues, employers can apply the same model. If employees are complaining about their employer on social media, it might hurt a corporate brand -- but it at least allows the employer a chance to address complaints or dissatisfaction.
Many companies conduct internal employee surveys to evaluate morale and employee satisfaction. As an alternative, HR or marketing staff could consider following and creating user lists/groups of employees on social sites to easily monitor conversations. Using a monitoring tool like Seesmic or Tweetdeck for Twitter allows an employer to continuously monitor keywords -- like your company name -- and immediately address unfavorable messaging. Caution: If your workplace doesn't offer a culture of transparency and openness, employees could misconstrue this as employer stalking.
Just like unhappy employees complain about their jobs, happy employees love to share their positive workplace experience. And 78% of consumers trust peer recommendations over a brand's marketing efforts. That holds true for the workplace as well: Happy, well-performing employees will attract similar employees -- a huge recruiting benefit.
The key for happy tweeps and happy tweets is creating a culture and environment in which an employee feels as though he can contribute and express himself. A satisfied employee will be an advocate for your company, might share job openings with friends and boast about the latest accomplishments. You can't buy that kind of press. Employers that embrace social media and provide employees with a simple policy, best practices, legal no-nos and basic usage/etiquette training will create an environment of openness with lower risk to the employer.