Is banning Facebook and other social networks at work shortsighted?

access-denied.jpgQuite a few NZ organisations have blocked access to Trademe, and now social networking sites like Facebook are getting similar treatment.  Yes, some employers have experienced hassles from a small number of employees spending too much time “social networking” with friends (and playing scrabble and Texas hold ‘em) during work time, reducing productivity.

Before you go down the “Faceblocking” route, I suggest taking a few minutes to think about the message this sends to your workforce and the possible future implications for yourself and your employees.

Impact on your employer brand message

Most organisations I know want to be an Employer of Choice.  Does blocking social networks erode the perception of ‘trust’ between employer and employee?  What does it say about your employer brand?  One blogger recently summed up the message like this:

We think you’re going to try to steal from us by not working during every minute for which you’re being paid. We think you’re out to screw us out of something, and by gosh we’re going to do everything we can to stop you. Adversarial, derogatory, and downright hostile, if you ask me … I would NOT want to work for a company like that. And I sure as hell wouldn’t be willing to do work on my “personal” time, or give one iota more than the bare minimum required of me to be “productive”. No innovation. No “extra mile” efforts.

I asked a group of Wellington employees in a medium-sized organisation what they thought of their employer’s recent actions in blocking Facebook.  Here are some of their comments:

  • Why don’t they ban meetings, they are largely unproductive in our organisation - I’d like to see them do that
  • There was no communication, they just banned it and that stinks
  • I can manage my own time, I work damn hard and don’t need some HR person telling me how to manage my workload - do they want me to pull back on all those many times, late nights and weekends, in which I work?
  • We all waste some time at work - I can’t be switched on all the time - I probably only used to check into Bebo and Facebook for about 10 minutes each day - I will just now take a longer lunch, chat to my work colleagues more, or join the group of smokers who seem to be always disappearing downstairs
  • I will miss my connection with the outside world during work time - it always made me happier when I could get non-work things off my chest to friends - it actually made me a happier, more productive worker
  • HR are the fun police in here - just another example of bullying behaviour - they probably have never used a social networking site themselves, so have absolutely no idea
  • I’m going to get an iPhone or similar and access Facebook from that in work time
  • I got into Bebo and then Facebook with a hiss and a roar and was spending quite a bit of time at work on these sites - I’m a bit over it now and I may spend one minute in the morning, a minute at lunch time and a minute late afternoon on these sites - shoot me
  • Welcome to North Korea 
  • Ban mobile phones I say 
  • It’s cool, I will join a place that offers Facebook - I will keep an eye out for “we offer Facebook” in any job ads

To be honest, I have come across some people within organisations who don’t care either way, but it’s still interesting that some people feel quite anti or cynical about blocking, even if they were not a user themselves.  This seems to be compounded if there’s no rationale communicated at the time.   As you will note in the above employee comments, HR seems to be getting a bad rap; often the decision to block comes from IT managers, who may have data privacy, security, and bandwidth issues on their minds.  Again, communication to employees is important - a matter of courtesy in fact.

Is there a problem in the first place? 

It’s perfectly fair for an employer to investigate whether productivity has slipped due to time spent on social networking sites, but is it fair to block all employees just because one or two have a problem?  In fact it should not be assumed that time spent on social networks impacts negatively on productivity at all.  There are some reports from overseas that claim Facebook in particular is hurting productivity in quite specific monetary terms, but a lot of this comment is at best anecdotal (or comes from vendors who sell web monitoring systems and thus have a vested interest).

Security of company information is a fair issue - an employer does lack an element of control, especially when employees can send and receive private messages.  But I’m wondering if this is a non-problem, as I haven’t heard of any specific horror stories.  There is always the risk of a disgruntled employee writing disparaging or commercially sensitive information on a social network (or blog for that matter), but they could do this from home just as easily.  What is probably most relevant is if employees make reference to their employer, directly or indirectly, in the public domain.  Often people benefit from knowing their employer’s policy or guidelines on ‘responsible use’.  There was one recent case where a NZ employee was dismissed by her employer for writing on Bebo that “work sux” and making a seemingly offensive remark about management. 

One could argue that a good manager doesn’t need to ban any site, they just need to enforce clear expectations about work productivity and acceptable use - if people take advantage, then there needs to be at the very least a dialogue between manager and employee.  Address the cause and don’t just focus on the symptom, I say.

Are you banning a potential business tool?

There’s a lot happening in this space.  First, there is huge potential for employers to use social networks as a business tool to engage with a large audience and market their products and services to customers. 

A recent article from across the ditch provides some examples of Australian employers that are actually encouraging their employees to embrace responsible use of social networking.  The article examines some examples:

  • IBM encourages its employees to explore responsibly – indeed, to further the development of – new spaces of relationship-building, learning and collaboration
  • It’s a good way for our [Flight Centre] travel agents to be able to interact with each other and with their clients, potentially.  But we’re obviously pretty keen to ensure it’s done in an appropriate manner, particularly if it’s representing Flight Centre or any of its brands.

Telstra, a major Australian employer, has specified that Facebook be used only as a “business tool” and only as part of one’s job function.

My thinking is that social networks are a large potential marketing and sales opportunity for organisations (including in a recruitment context).  They are where people are hanging out in ever-increasing numbers.  If you don’t understand or visit your target market, determine what motivates them and turns them off, including how they communicate with others, then how can you expect you and your work colleagues to effectively target and build relationships with your consumer base?

LinkedIn is an interesting case in point.  It’s a pure business networking platform where users showcase their professional face, grow their network, post job vacancies, and ask business-related questions - and may I add actually get good answers back.  At the moment, it feels a bit like putting your CV online.  However, LinkedIn will soon be launching a lot of features and tools similar to those Facebook released mid-year.  I believe these developments will make LinkedIn more interesting in a business application sense, and you may be missing out if your customer-base is on there but you’re not.  May I add that LinkedIn has NOT been blocked by the organisation whose employees I spoke to about banning Facebook.

One other last consideration is that some businesses are seriously thinking about dumping their current intranet in favour of setting up a private work network on a social networking site like Facebook or Ning.  Why not if you get all the latest bells and whistles, technology and feature-wise.  It’s hard to go down this track if you’ve already blocked access to a particular platform.

Reduced access options

Instead of complete blocking, an employer may wish to consider reduced access.  An employer can be quite creative in determining an alternative.  Again, the reasons behind this need to be articulated to employees.  Here’s just a few options:

  • Facebook Fridays
  • Lunch time access
  • Before and after work access
  • 20 minutes per day

I would like to wish all our Engage Blog subscribers, readers and contributers in 2007 a very happy and safe time over the holiday season.  Exciting times are planned for Engage in 2008.  For those of you in the Southern Hemisphere, please step away from your computer screen and head to the beach immediately!

Paul Jacobs

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