Legend has it that at some point during the 11th century, King Canute publicly tried to hold back the tide. He did this in full knowledge that it was an impossible task, to demonstrate that even with a divine right to rule, some things remained outside his control. In kingdoms as in business, there are some things we will always struggle to prevent. The specific tide I have in mind here is social media use at work.
Let a little water in, to stop the flood.
The Dutch have a way of dealing with issues that are potentially harmful to people. Let a little water in to stop the flood. As a country constantly at threat of inundation you can appreciate the logic. The national preference is for active management of issues rather than a giant wall of prevention. This mindset shapes their policies on sex and drug regulation. I’m not sure how they feel about rock & roll.
I’ve heard plenty of people talk about social media at work as something that should be stamped out at all costs. I know many large corporations have outlawed access to key channels on company computers. But people have phones. There is no getting away from social media. Like water, it will always find a way.
Brand reputation is risked all the time, on and offline.
When people are losing their jobs over inappropriate posts, it is easy to see why there is concern about the risk to brand reputation. But surely all social media does is make public, behaviour that would have shown up in other ways. The majority of brand damage goes on unchecked because it is unreported. We can only hope that the people whose jobs were lost might then have thought twice about how they act in future, both on and off-line.
Is social media use a symptom or a cause?
It has to be said that channels like Facebook and Instagram are pretty distracting. If you’re not careful, hours can be lost in mindless munching of never-ending content. The couch potato phenomenon has most certainly gone mobile. But you have to ask yourself, if people are so bored with the task at hand that they would rather lose themselves in You Tube, is social media the cause of the problem or just a symptom?
Distraction at work is nothing new.
People have always found plenty of ways to distract themselves from being productive – endless meetings, hundreds of ‘reply all’ emails to sift through. We all have our own ways of putting off what we need to get done. But rather than berate people, shouldn’t we be asking what is ‘really’ getting in the way of them being more productive?
Social media has its uses.
And what about the notion that social media can be put to good use at work? For example, if we are asking people to focus on a task for intensive periods, couldn’t ‘Facebook breaks’ be used as a simple reward mechanism?
Outside of this, there is wider potential. Take the problem of cross-functional projects. These are hard to run successfully when people are working solely within departmental boundaries. What if we used online social interaction to tackle productivity barriers like the silo mentality?
Communities of interest are powerful tools for binding teams across functional divides. If we know we share common ground with someone, all other conversations become that much easier. I’m not advocating the befriending of everyone in your office on Facebook. Heaven forbid. But I have seen at first hand, the benefits of helping people get to know each other through shared personal goals.
Public commitments for positive action.
Status updates can be re-focused from ‘look at me’ and ‘what I had for dinner’ to public commitments for positive action. It works for Weight Watchers, so who are we to argue? In a work context, this kind of interaction can be a great supplement to more formal team-building activities. Being able to share progress or first-hand experiences of personal challenges gives people something to talk about. Then maybe next time we’re stood in the staff kitchen, it might actually get us to strike up a conversation rather than checking our phones.