The Risks of Social Media: Decreased Worker Productivity

To me, the biggest concerns companies should have about social media revolve around reputation damage, legal liability and workplace issues (cyber-stalking, sexual harassment, etc.). These are the issues that can hurt the most, with some other things to watch for being improper disclosure of confidential/financial information, data breaches, viruses/malware and any other general network security concerns.

We have been covering such concerns throughout the year in our Risks of Social Media series (something we will be bringing to print in Risk Management magazine in our October issue. Look for that next week. And see the pretty cover our designer created for the story here.)

Another issue that comes up constantly whenever I discuss social media risks with executives is decreased worker productivity.

To many, this seems to be the largest drawback to social media. In their eyes, workers who previously toiled away for the duration of their eight-hour shift are now so enthralled by Facebook and Twitter that they simply cannot help but peruse the sites constantly throughout the day. While they are doing that, of course, they aren’t getting any work done. Less work equals less production, which equals lower profits.

The way they see it, that is the grand downside of Facebook: it compels people to not work while they are at work.

The way I see it … that’s a crock.

Sure. It happens. Some people do spend a lot of time on social networks. They chat with friends, they look at family vacation photos and play Farmville. They waste a lot of time.

But this is really nothing new.

The internet is full of distractions, and if someone doesn’t want to work, they will find a way to not work. Facebook and Twitter did not create a new wave of malaise and boredom among those with dull jobs. People trapped in boring jobs — or just poor workers employed in good jobs — have been finding ways to be unproductive at work since well before the internet was even used at most companies.

Cigarette breaks and the water cooler have existed for a long time. Watch Mad Men and you will see how even the high-powered execs of the 1950s and 60s wasted time boozing and socializing at the office. The Super Bowl, March Madness, fantasy football, Survivor, American Idol, the Oscars and a seemingly limitless amount of other distractions may take up a substantial part of any given employee’s attention while at work.

Or take this fictional exchange between “efficiency expert” Bob Porter and data processor Peter Gibbons in Office Space, a cinematic lampoon of the modern workplace:

Bob Porter: We’re trying to get a feel for how people spend their day at work … So, if you would, would you walk us through a typical day, for you?

Peter Gibbons: Yeah. I generally come in at least fifteen minutes late, ah, I use the side door – that way Lumbergh can’t see me, heh heh – and, uh, after that I just sorta space out for about an hour.

Bob Porter: Da-uh? Space out?

Peter Gibbons: Yeah, I just stare at my desk; but it looks like I’m working. I do that for probably another hour after lunch, too. I’d say in a given week I probably only do about fifteen minutes of real, actual work.

The point here is that if your workers don’t like their jobs, they can find many ways to not get any work done. And if they do like there jobs, the allure of Facebook — despite all the buzz you hear about its unprecedented ability to connect millions — is not nearly great enough to force quality employees to ignore their responsibilities.

Facebook Productivity

(The comical part about this whole post is that I myself was on Facebook prior to writing it — and then Facebook had a major, extended service interruption, which prompted me to actually do some work and write down my thoughts on the matter after seeing the satirical tweet above from @OPB. Yes, I’m a hypocrite. I know.)

This isn’t to say that companies should not explain to employees in a social media policy that they are not to waste time on Facebook all day. They should do exactly that.

But it’s not some new-age problem. Workers should not be wasting time doing anything. That’s the message. Rolling out some draconian policy that applies to the employee’s social media usage, however, is more likely to be alienating and de-motivational than it is to make employees want to do more work. At least that’s how I see it.

Besides, most people today who use Facebook and Twitter extensively can do it on their smartphone anyway. So if you implement controls on their desktop computer, they can just sit in their cubical and twiddle away on their iPhones and Blackberrys. Or, ya know, just sorta space out for about an hour after lunch.

For more on the topic, Gini Dietrich of the excellent blog Spin Sucks seems to share my view, calling worker productivity a “management issue” not a social media issue.

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4 thoughts on “The Risks of Social Media: Decreased Worker Productivity

  1. Nice perspective. I have put an opposite viewpoint in one article though it is not directly “related to social media. The title is “Cutting Costs in a Positive Way”. It has some interesting data on productivity which might interest you.


  2. Hey look at that! You included the video, too. Thanks!!

    I DO agree! It’s a crock! About two years ago, one of my best friends (who works for an international bank) called me in a panic. You see, she’s a mortgage lender and she uses Facebook to connect with real estate agents, both to stay top-of-mind, but also to see when they’re working with new clients so she can remind them she’s there for the mortgage end of things. She’s built quite a little network of agents who trust her because they feel like they know her as a person through Facebook. Well, the bank put up a firewall and she could no longer access Facebook at work. I said, “Use your phone.” And that is coming straight from a business owner who has employees AND allows them to use social media at work.

    Give me a break. You’re right – people will find a way and wouldn’t you rather they do it in the open, where you can MONITOR it than sneak it?

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