Friday, 6 January 2012

Ban Social Networking at Work?

Yesterday I blogged about the sales collapse at Groupon in the lead up to Christmas and I have also looked at the apparent large drop off in use of social networking sites like Twitter over the traditional holiday period. In the two blogs, I have suggested that there seems to be a marked indication that social networking is being 'transacted' largely in working hours. If, I surmised, that the majority of all social networking is for 'social' use and not business, are employers going to get wise to the apparent fact that their workers are using social networking heavily in working hours which may be impacting productivity?

Indeed, should companies actively ban or limit the use of social networking at work? Should they have a distinct policy about its use? Should they only allow social networking to be used by agreed members of staff and for company promotional use only?

I ask these questions as the mini-debate in the comments on my blog sparked quite polar views. On the one hand it was suggested that people with certain types of job like bank-telling or police on the beat as examples should not use social networking as their job demands their full attention. As a good example, you would not expect a professional footballer to use Twitter while 'working' playing a match or a boxer during a fight or a rugby player during a game.

However, you might expect all of those people to engage in social networking outside of their working hours. Perhaps in their breaks - although I can't imagine Sir Alex Ferguson's reaction during the half time team talk if Wayne Rooney had his head down tweeting.

On the other hand at least two people argued that there should be full, unfettered access to social networking as this would enrich personal and team performance and make employees more productive as they are being more creative and happier. And there is a fair argument in working relations terms to show that happy employees are productive employees.

I have worked with companies who have distinct policies - say no more than half an hour on certain websites during work hours or social networking sites being filtered out completely. I have also worked with companies who have had full, unfettered access to the internet. I can honestly say that my own observation is that access to internet is vital for most people to do their job. However, at those companies where there has been a policy there has been a range of performance observations.

In the companies where there was unfettered access to the internet there was a cross section of performances on show. In one company I have worked with, a general monitor was put on staff to measure time spent on certain sites. The information was not used as an HR or management tool per se but it was used to develop policy although it was clear that certain individuals were spoken to casually about their usage specifically of Facebook afterwards. The results showed that specifically salespeople who spent more than 30% of their woking day logged into Facebook were markedly less productive than those who logged in less than 30% of their working day. 

A very interesting correlation showed that those who intermittently accessed the site during the day actually were more productive even if they were logged on on more than 30% of the time  - and there was no real timing pattern to this like lunch hour. 

The result of the survey was that company developed a policy around Facebook use specifically but it was extended to a number of websites including online stores like Amazon. There was a serious kickback at first and the policy was amended to accommodate some of the feedback but it eventually went forward with a limitation of use of Facebook in peak working hours. This has remained in force.

The results have shown that overall productivity as measured in a very detailed way in terms of access to work related systems, orders entered, sales achieved, profitability achieved, cash collected, supplier orders placed, stock reduced etc etc has not really increased or decreased appreciably. However, the company did hit all its fiscal targets in the following year having underachieved the year before. However, the budgets reflected the economic climate so were less onerous.

But, in certain job functions where there was a distinct measure on performance, productivity increased. More outbound phone calls were made, more access to the company CRM, online order and backlog systems were made, more physical transactions were made, more old stock was reduced.

It's arguable that none of those increases actually were related to decrease of use of Facebook specifically and they did not run a similar detail 'before and after' use comparison, mainly as there was some kickback about 'Big Brother' use of monitoring impinging privacy. But the biggest measure that was impacted was staff churn. In this specific industry, staff churn, particularly in the desk bound sales area, is high at around 45%. This fell to below 40% for the first time in 5 years.

I have only read the findings but anecdotally, I have worked with a company where there was no access to social networking or sports or retail sites during the day and that company has bombed since its IPO two years ago. Meanwhile, I have worked with a firm with unfettered access to the internet and seen salespeople even communicate in offices via Facebook - the company performance was poor and sales call out days were the worst I have ever seen in participation terms.

Yet those companies with clear guidelines seem to get something back. As in all things, there is a balance to be had. What the firm who did the study found was that there were some staff who just spent an incredible amount of their day on sites non-work related, but particularly Facebook. There was no doubt that those who did were the worst performing members of the company by some distance. But more importantly, these staff members actually brought the performance of their teams down.

I still think you have to look at this issue on a case by case basis. It was clear from this in depth study that people performed really well when they seemed to finish tasks and took a break on the internet. Those who never logged out were contributing virtually nothing and poisoned the performance of others. In reality, this is not rocket science and it's nothing new, as the HR Director pointed out in the narrative. This is just a case of certain workers either being in the wrong job or not being managed or trained well or being plain lazy, finding distractions to make their day more interesting. On company time.

So in my own, mini experience, I have seen companies like Google with the most whacky work environment possible for distractions to productivity become one of the biggest companies in the world, I have seen a public company hurtle downwards after restricting internet access and I have seen a company with a sound and fair policy get gains.

A balance is to be had and as with all things, where people know and understand the boundaries, you get good results.

Now here's the corollary to the findings at the company I mentioned. The policy of use of social networking sites ( and certain other sites) is a guideline and is voluntary. There is no monitor on the system stopping them after a certain time. The employees themselves police their own policy. Use of Facebook specifically has more than halved since the implementation of the policy and very few staff now log on for more than 30% of their working day. There have has been only one disciplinary related to excessive use of social networking and that was raised after members of the person's team brought it to their manager's attention.

I like to think that's a victory for common sense all round.

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