Time for business to click ‘like’ on social networking

The Business Moment Editor TOBY VENABLES muses on the wisdom of banning personal social networking from the workplace

One morning not long ago, I saw a status update on Facebook by a friend of mine taking a pop at all the people he’d seen that morning who were transfixed by their handheld devices. It struck me as funny that he’d chosen to broadcast this damning indictment of media-addicted society via a virtual social network, so I added a comment underneath: ‘Says the bloke who’s on Facebook every five minutes…’

Then I forgot about it and went back to work. A little while later I had a message from him (via Facebook again) apologising for the fact that he’d deleted my comment (I actually hadn’t noticed); he understood perfectly well that it was a joke, but had taken it down because his boss, who perhaps didn’t, was looking over his shoulder.

On one level, I totally understood. But it also made me rather sad. Clearly his boss was OK with Facebook being used in the office, or my friend would simply have closed the browser altogether. But also, apparently, my friend was fearful that he might still be thought of as a time waster.

No matter how relaxed our workplace is, most of us probably have pangs of guilt such as these – when we take a personal call, or answer an email that isn’t work-related. Of course, Facebook and other social networks expand the possibilities for having one’s attention elsewhere – by putting them in the same place that the work happens. For some, this is a problem. It would be too strong to say most workplaces are hostile to social networks, but some do not allow them to be accessed on work computers at all, and there is a general view that they are, at best, a distraction which needs to be kept in check. With the exception of LinkedIn, which is useful, but not much fun – both plusses in a traditional work environment – for ‘network’ read ‘not work’.

But perhaps it’s time to revise this view. Perhaps it’s time businesses and employers let go of their prejudices, trusted their employees, and let personal social networks go to work on the business’s behalf. I know that a significant proportion of the opportunities that have come my way would not have done so without social networks. I have made valuable lifelong contacts through them. Secured work through them. Seen people get jobs via them. Companies of a more traditional bent fear social networks because they are powerful, and compelling, and can suck people in. But they’re missing the point.

Instead of resisting it, they could be using that power to further their own business, via happy employees who are its champions. Some – mostly those already involved in media or publicity – are already doing so, but I’m convinced most businesses could benefit from such a shift in thinking. It’s like the old argument about legalising cannabis – that by doing so, by bringing it within the law, it becomes more controllable. This is not to say that ‘control’ is only imposed from above. There’s also the sense of responsibility that it instils when such trust is given. That trust makes for a happier, more empowered workforce – as does the ability to take a few minutes out now and then without feeling that Big Brother is watching you (something that has been shown to increase productivity rather than reduce it).

For those of us who often carry our offices in a bag over our shoulders, social media is the watercooler moment and the chat over coffee, as well as the elevator pitch. I would not choose to be wthout it – for either personal or business reasons – and would feel resentful in an environment where restrictions were imposed.

Isn’t it time business embraced this fully, and, rather than stubbornly trying to resist the tide, went with the clearly unstoppable flow – and reaped the potential benefits?

Time for business to click ‘like’ on social networking…

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