Blurring the lines between work and life in social media use

Blog Post # 4

A few months ago, I was working on a computer in the office of an organization my team is working with on a development project in the Caribbean.  I wanted to look something up on Facebook and found that the site was blocked – as it turns out, so was LinkedIn.  Interestingly, you could get to probably the biggest timewaster, YouTube.  This whole blocking of the personal use of the company computers and networks to access social media seemed so 10 years ago to me.

In Canada and the United States, by contrast, the pressure is now on to use social media at work – both your personal accounts and those of your employer. A survey looking at the social media use of 600 workers found that workers of all ages are logging on to Facebook and Twitter at work in big numbers. Some are even pressured to use their own accounts to promote company messages, blurring the lines between professional and private social lives.  While 25% of the respondents said they were encouraged to use their personal accounts for work purposes, 17% reported that using their own accounts was required. This reality is in stark contrast to the old approach of blocking social media sites in the workplace for fear that the work won’t get done.

IBM is one of those companies that encourages its employees to use social media. According to Warren Tomlin, writing in the Globe and Mail’s Leadership Lab series, “IBM uses the term ‘work-life integration’ rather than ‘work-life balance’ because the reality is for our people – and specifically people entering our work force – the lines between ‘work’ and ‘non-work’ are blurry.” He reports checking personal accounts, texting his colleagues, and using chat programs simultaneously to be in constant communication with teams throughout the day and night. He points out that many of these tools promote more natural, less formal conversation than e-mail does and suit the always-on business culture we live in today.

Tomlin claims that new grads joining the work force are used to constant sharing of information on social networks and naturally gravitate to this integration of work and life. But he may be wrong to assume that this will familiarity with social media will make new graduates experts in using these tools to the advantage of their employers. According to William Ward, professor of social media at Syracuse University, they know how to use social media to connect with people they already know but are not skilled in using social media tools to reach out to new professional contacts and, more importantly, do not always realize that the lines between the professional and personal worlds are so blurry, and they continue to post inappropriate selfies and comments on their personal accounts after entering the professional world.

The take away from this is that companies that want to benefit from the use of social media should expect to train new employees on how to use social media professionally and strategically. They need to find ways to layer the communication and strategy skills onto the technical skills and personal social media skills of recent graduates. Inside the company itself, the use of social media tools to facilitate teamwork on projects has proven to be effective and economical.  Internal networks like Yammer promote the kind of informal and instant communication that Tomlin finds so effective in his work for IBM – instead of working with overloaded e-mail boxes, savvy companies use message boards and chat tools to allow everyone to contribute to project progress in one place. A McKinsey Global Institute Report found that the use of internal social media to support better-functioning teams could add between $900 million and $1.3 trillion to the U.S. economy by increasing productivity in the work place.

I am thinking now of having a chat with the head of our partner organization, which, while full of bright, hard-working people equipped with smart phones and tablets, is mired in internal process barriers and formal communication protocols that slow the pace of meeting goals . . . maybe step one would be removing the barriers to using social media tools and freeing staff to communicate naturally.

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