Are your employees spending too much time on Twitter and Facebook?

When the internet was introduced to offices over a decade ago, employers were worried that employees would spend more time surfing the internet than they did working. The expression "cyber slacking" was born. In 2009, social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook have taken the internet to a whole new level. No longer is the internet just used for reading content, now people can interact with their friends in real time whilst sitting at their desks. To further promote interaction, developers have come up with a vast array of applications where users can play games, send virtual gifts or compare themselves to a celebrity. Hey, you can even run your own virtual farm from the comfort of your office cubicle. Therefore, it is not surprising that employers are worried that no work will get done.

But that's not the only problem

Cyber-slacking is a very real problem for employers. Just like playstation and Nintendo, social networking sites can become very addictive. Find an old friend, research what they have been up to for the last few years, post something on their wall, invite them to play a game, and suddenly it is morning tea time and no work has been done.

However, cyber-slacking is not the only problem. It will not be any surprise to learn that employees who spend most of their time at work on social networking sites are likely to be disengaged. If they are disengaged, it may well be that they don't have very kind words to say about you and your business.

In the olden days, moaning about your employer was confined to water coolers and after work drinks. Twitter and Facebook have made it possible for these comments to find their way into cyberspace where they will remain forever as a lasting indictment on your reputation.

The problem is that tweets and posts can be made with the swift push of a button which means that employees often don't think of the potential consequences before they act. They forget that what they may say may find its way back to you or cause lasting damage to them and to you, forever and in eternity. A supposedly innocent tweet about what the employee is working on, may turn about to be a large breach of confidentiality which is picked up by one of your competitors.

So, what is the solution?

The knee-jerk solution

A common response to problems like this is to block access to such sites altogether so that an employee can't go to those sites from their desktops. That reaction was partially successful a decade ago when employers decided to block access to web based email providers such as Hotmail and Yahoo. However, technology has moved on a bit since then and now employees can access sites like Twitter and Facebook directly from their phone. So what do you do ban phones? Sounds a bit big brother to me. After all you may have given them the phone in the first place so that they are more connected to their work. The development of technology over the last several years has meant that the distinction between work time and personal time has become very blurred, with employees doing work matters at home outside of work hours and personal stuff in work during work hours. To require one, but deny the other does nothing to create a work/life balance which is a detriment to you and the employee.

Social networking sites have other benefits

Of course to ban social networking sites altogether ignores some of the potential benefits for your business. Many businesses are now using social networking sites to promote their products and services and disseminate useful information. Twitter and Facebook is how Gen Y keeps their fingers on the pulse. You want employees to have their fingers on the pulse of new trends in your industry, new product developments, and breaking news.

Similarly, the social side of social networking allows your employees to reconnect with old friends in ways that weren't possible before. So, if you have a vacancy in your business you could end up recruiting the right talent through your employees' networks.

Now, I don't profess to understand all the potential ramifications and opportunities for businesses presented by Facebook and Twitter (and I suspect no one else does either - not even the creators of those sites) but what I do know is that there will be advantages and disadvantages for business. Therefore, the only sensible strategy is to exploit the advantages and minimise the risks. Close yourself off completely to the opportunity and 2010 will leave you behind.

How to minimise the risks

If banning Twitter and Facebook is not the answer, then what is? The answer is simply that you need to control your employees' use of those sites through an acceptable use policy. For some time, companies have had internet usage policies but those are now out of date with the advent of Twitter and Facebook. You need to decide what is acceptable use of these websites in your business. How long is it reasonable for an employee to spend on the internet during work time? 

Now before you start allocating time to this activity, I'm going to invite you to look at things in a very different way. An employee is at work to do their job to the standard expected of you. If they are not performing at their job then there may be many reasons, of which excessive use of social networking sites may be one. If that is the case, enforce your performance standards and set targets. Do that properly, and if the employee wants to keep his or her job then they won't have time to spend on social networking sites. If they don't improve, then warnings will follow and dismissal will be sure to eventuate.

Next, take the whizz kid, who, no matter how much work you seem to give him he still seems to finish his work in half the time of everyone else. If he has spare time, encourage him to use social networking sites and the internet because that is how he will glean information which will help him do his work even better.

The cause of social networking and what you can do about it

The thing to remember is that excessive use of social networking sites at work is caused by two factors:

1. Employee disengagement

2. The employee not having enough work to do

Social networking sites do not cause employee disengagement or a lack of things to do. The cause of employee disengagement and not having enough to do lies at your doorstep. If there is something that you are doing or not doing that is causing disengagement, then fix it. If the employee is inheritantly disengaged, then free up their future. If they have insufficient things to do, either give them more to do or allow them the latitude to use social networking sites and the internet to glean more information. If you ban social networking sites, they will simply find some other way to waste their time.

My recommended strategy

So, if you are wondering how to handle social networking in 2010 here is my recommended strategy:

1. Do not ban or block social networking sites;

2. Investigate how social networking sites can be used to develop your business;

3. Develop an acceptable use policy which sets parameters over how your employees can use social media (i.e. restrictions on work related commentary, reminders about inadvertent breaches of confidentiality, and explanations as to what may amount to excessive use);

4. If an employee is underperforming, treat the underperformance as a performance issue rather than treat the non-performance as a breach of your acceptable use policy;

5. Take steps to create an engaged workforce and treat them like human beings who have a life which runs parallel to their work life, rather than a life which runs entirely separate to their work life.

Above all, have a fantastic and prosperous 2010

Special Bonus for anyone who buys Employed But Not Engaged: the E-book BEFORE 31 Janaury

Everyone who purchases a copy of Employed but not Engaged - the Ebook before 31 January 2010 will receive a complimentary Acceptable Use Policy for their business. Currently you can buy Employed but not Engaged - the Ebook at a special pre-release price of $99 compared to the RRP of $198 i.e. HALF PRICE. To place your order for Employed but not Engaged - the Ebook which will be released on 1 February 2010 click here.
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