Businesses still succumb to fear-inducing “studies” on workers’ social media use

Posted on February 6, 2013 8:45 pm by | Business | Social Media

Employee using social media

(c) Can Stock Photo
Here we go again.

No matter how much evidence piles up in support of employees engaging in social media at work, it seems the fearmongers and opportunists will continue to produce questionable data and faulty conclusions. As a result, leaders will continue to eschew the benefits of employees online and implement measures designed to stop employees from networking during work hours.

My podcast co-host Neville Hobson shared a press release from CensorNet that veritably gushed over a Kansas State University report on “cyberloafing” (an inflammatory label if ever I’ve heard one). CensorNet’s endorsement of the study is no surprise, since it takes money from companies to block employee access to social media. “The key takeout from this research is that it costs organisations a lot more than the direct costs of the member of staff idling the day away – there are legal, reputational and potential brand damage issues involved,” according to CensorNet CEO Tim Lloyd.

The press release also notes that the Kansas State study finds that 60-80% of the time employees spend online has nothing to do with work. But who are you going to believe? A study released late last year claims precisely the opposite. According to SilkRoad Technology’s survey, nearly half of employees log on to connect with co-workers, and 44% do so to connect with customers, the third most popular reason.

Then there’s Basex, a business research company that estimated back in 2007 that employees engaged in non-work-related online activities are costing their companies $650 billion per year in lost productivity. The number is a back-of-the-envelope calculation based on the amount of time employees spend “cyberloafing” per day (I’ve also heard “cyberslacking” employed as a pejorative term) and applying an average hourly pay rate, then multiplying that by the total number of employees, then by the number of days in a week, and finally by the number of weeks in the year.

These kinds of numbers tend to get a lot of attention, prompting outlets like ABC News to report on people like Eli Federman, a senior VP at a company that has invested time and energy getting employees to network via Yammer with colleagues instead of with people outside the company on Facebook.

Federman says the benefits of weaning workers off Facebook and onto Yammer have been dramatic. In the customer service department alone, he says, productivity has risen a little more than 48 percent. “We’re getting, on average, $5 an hour more per worker in productivity,” he tells ABC News. Plus, he says, morale has improved. Employees didn’t like being denied access to Twitter and Facebook. Yammer gives them an alternative most of them seem to find acceptable: Their socializing is limited to fellow workers; but limited socializing is apparently better than none at all.

The problem is that the productivity numbers are just so much bullshit. On the one hand you have Basex’s silly multiplication exercise, and Kansas State’s methodology is a mystery, since the press release announcing the findings only note that the results will be published in a journal sometime in the future. (You also have to wonder if Federman is aware of the volumes of research indicating the large and growing customer preference for obtaining customer service via social networks. How much opportunity is his company missing because the customer service department is restricted to the phones for addressing problems, questions and complaints?)

Stack these findings up against McKinsey & Company, which sees $1.3 trillion in value that companies can unlock by giving employees access to both internal and external social media; the firm estimates productivity gains at 20-25% based on employees spending less time searching for information; Deloitte agrees, saying social media enables workers to more quickly deal with exceptions to their work processes.

An earlier study by McKinsey noted that “fully networked” companies—with employees engaging both internally and externally—measurably take market share away from competitors.

The University of Melbourne did research that found productivity improved among staff who are able to go online for personal reasons because it allowed them to reset their concentration and maintain higher productivity levels throughout the day. Study author Dr. Brent Coker pegged productivity gains at 9%. A similar study from the National University of Singapore produced the same positive results.

Then there’s a report from The Altimeter Group which finds that social media crises happen to companies that block employee access; those that train employees and turn them loose online tend not to experience these incidents.

So while Federman may have convinced himself that employees confined to internal networking are better for his company, the evidence from serious research indicate he’s actually stunting market-share growth and hindering productivity on multiple levels.

I have always appreciated the metaphor employed by the U.S. Department of Defense when deciding to unblock access to social media for all military personnel. The military had been thinking of social media as a fortress to be defended, an idea that didn’t stand up to scrutiny, given that enemies of the U.S. (not to mention children of soldiers) used it. Instead, the military adopted the belief that social media is a field of maneuver. Once seen through that lens, it was easy to realize that branches of the military trained their personnel to be safe on multiple fields of maneuver and that social media would be no different. (Anyone can visit the DoD’s Social Media Hub, including education and training materials.)

Ultimately, though, businesses weighing employee access versus restrictions need to consider a few questions before opting to adopt draconian policies:

  1. Do the knowledge workers who would be able to access social media from their workstations put in only eight hours? The studies that claim billions of dollars of productivity is lost to social media base their calculations on time stolen from an eight-hour day. Most knowledge workers routinely work longer hours.
  2. Do knowledge workers take work home? I once saw a study (I wish I could find it again) that claimed for every hour a knowledge worker spent on non-work-related activities at work, he spent 1.5 hours working at home or other away-from-office locations.
  3. What is the real state of productivity in the organization? Productivity is defined as the ration of production output to what is required to produce it. Are employees producing what is expected of them? On time? Is it quality work? If so, then productivity isn’t truly suffering, is it?
  4. Will restricting access to social media turn those employees who are inclined to waste time into paragons or productivity? Of course not. They’ll find other ways to waste time.

There are other benefits to consider, such as the value of employees engaging with their communities and advocating on behalf of the organization, of decision-makers having access to their peers for idea-testing, of capturing competitive intelligence. The list goes on.

Even more important is the transformation from social media to social business. If social technologies are destined to become integral parts of business processes, all employees will need to engage effectively with stakeholders inside and outside the organization. Companies that perceive social media the way CensorNet wants them to will suffer dearly at the hands of competitors who have figured out that these tools are, in fact, a boon to their businesses.

For more resources on how employees engaged in social media will drive productivity and profit, please visit the collection I curate, which is loaded with research, case studies and more.

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