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. Today, social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook have 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 be no surprise to learn that employees who spend most of their time at work on social networking sites are likely to be disengaged. If so, it may well be that they don’t have very kind words to say about you and your business. Similarly, an innocent tweet about a project the employee is working on may turn about to be a large breach of confidentiality.
So, what is the solution?
The knee-jerk solution
A common response is to block access to such sites altogether. 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?
After all, you may have given them the phone in the first place so that they are more connected to their work. The current trend is for the distinction between work time and personal time to become very blurred. To require an employee to work in their personal time but not do personal stuff in their work time does nothing to create a work/life balance.
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 are how Gen Y keeps its fingers on the pulse. You want employees to keep up with 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.
How to minimise the risks
If banning Twitter and Facebook is not the answer, then what is? Simply, 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.
Now before you consider this issue, try not to put the cart before the horse. Excessive use of social networking sites is NOT the cause of employee disengagement, but rather a symptom. So, don’t think that banning or restricting the use of social networking sites will make your employees more engaged. If there is a problem with an employee’s performance, tackle the real issues through performance management and targets.
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 (ie: 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 it as a performance issue rather than a breach of your acceptable use policy;
5. Treat your employees 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.
Michael Smyth is the owner of ApproachableLawyer.com, a website designed to help NZ businesses stay out of legal trouble.
For more info visit www.approachablelawyer.com