The Social Notwork: Does keeping up hurt productivity or spark creativity?

When it’s 1 a.m. on a school night and my 10-year-old niece can’t sleep due to a terminal case of Bieber Fever, she blogs about it from her iPad in bed.

I’m friends with a wonderfully witty gay couple who are known to exchange snappy, LMAO-inducing repartee. Of course in 2011, these conversations take place while sitting right next to each other on the living room couch, but without actually speaking a word.

When my boyfriend accompanies me on a shopping excursion and I’m eager to debate whether my newfound flatforms are kinda cute or one of fashion’s biggest man repellers, he scrambles to find refuge in the nearest man chair, holds up his iPhone as a sort of social armor, and prays his Yahoo! Sportacular app will somehow shield him from this discussion and impending emasculation.

Hmmm, are we smarter than our smartphones?

Smart gadgetry has undoubtedly become an extension of who we are and alas few situations are sacred.
A 2010 Retrevo Gadgetology study asked social media users under age 25 if it were OK if they were interrupted by an electronic alert during: a meeting (22% said yes), a meal (49% said yes), while in the loo (24% said yes), even during sex (11% yes, yes, yes!) Percentages in the over 25 age group were about half as much for each scenario.

And if we’re not even going to switch off the HootSuite for an intimate encounter, why would we ignore our social network for a full eight hours at work? Well, we’re not.

The studies, the findings:

A Nucleus Research study reports that 77% of workers surveyed who have a Facebook account use it during work hours, some as much as two hours per day. One in 33 surveyed only used Facebook while at work.
In my own unofficial research, one person admitted to checking his TweetDeck every half hour while on the clock; another said she streamlined things by leaving her Facebook, Twitter, Delicious and CouchSurfing tabs open all day and clicking back and forth between them every few minutes. “I know this is bad,” she said, “but I can’t help myself.”

But whether being addicted to text is disastrous or not to office productivity depends on whom you ask.
The aforementioned Nucleus study found that Facebook shaves 1.5% off total office productivity. A survey conducted by IT services group Morse estimated that employees’ social “notworking” cost British companies $2.2 billion annually.

On the other hand, a University of Melbourne study reports that workers who engage in WILB (Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing) are 9% more productive than those who don’t.

According to Dr. Brent Coker, from the Melbourne Department of Management and Marketing, “Short and unobtrusive breaks, such as a quick surf of the Internet, enables the mind to reset itself, leading to a higher total net concentration for a days’ work, and as a result, increased productivity.”

The operative word here is short: within a limit of less than 20% of your total office time, says the study.
Wired Magazine writer Brendan Koerner adamantly advocates social media breaks in his essay “How Twitter and Facebook Make Us More Productive.”

“For knowledge workers charged with transforming ideas into products — whether gadgets, code, or even Wired articles — goofing off isn’t the enemy. In fact, regularly stepping back from the project at hand can be essential to success. And social networks are particularly well suited to stoking the creative mind.”
Koerner goes on to talk about creative association—“the mashing together of seemingly unrelated concepts”—as crucial for creators.

“This means that tweets about Lady Gaga’s lingerie can help someone debugging Perl code (Or a tweet about Perl code may help Lady Gaga’s underwear stylist.) A random scrap of information can trigger just the right conceptual collision. It’s hard to know which scrap might do the trick, but that’s the beauty of social networks — they constantly produce potential sparks, for free.”

Job skills from social networking? No way! But wait . . .

And more than just invigorating our imaginations, blogger James Adams posts about the highly desirable job skills one can acquire from social networking.

The Twitter Generation, for example, is far more adept at following hot trending topics in their industry, banishing the old school desktop rolodex and widening their client base through social media, and impressive multi-tasking.

“While adults in their 40’s and 50’s can easily manage three to five tasks at once, teens and twenty-somethings are effectively managing between 10 and 20 tasks and interactions at a given moment,” Adams writes. “Monitoring Twitter updates, replying quickly to a Facebook message, checking blogs, and sending email is all managed simultaneously…Younger adults can handle a variety of tasks and a greater workload, increasing productivity.”

Dwindling are the days of company-wide memos or time-consuming monthly meetings. Frequent micro-communication is immediate, efficient and to-the-point. When it comes to messages—either internal or external—brevity equals profit.

Journalist Katjusa Cisar credits Twitter’s imposed cogency with helping her hone this profitable job skill.
“One advantage of Twitter is that it forces brevity. When I was writing for print, brevity was incredibly important,” she says. “I remember routinely spending 10 minutes just finding creative ways to shave a lead down to the fewest number of words possible! It was a game for me. Online, there’s this temptation to just sprawl out paragraphs sloppily. With no space constraints, nothing is forcing you to clean it up and be brief. Twitter does that.”

Cisar also warns of the compulsion to “keep up” with your network, that uneasy feeling that if you go away for even a few hours, you might get left behind during the #rapture.

“Social networking should be digested in moderation or in intense, quick patches throughout the day,” she says. “It’s a great way to bounce ideas off of friends and followers, find news and interact, but you have to be careful because it’s overwhelming to digest a constant stream of information and it absolutely scrambles your brain to have 15 tabs open at all times.”

To cope with all the communication, Cisar takes total Internet hiatuses from time to time and absolutely loves her time off the grid.

“Sorry I’m not getting back to you sooner,” she writes after receiving my emailed interview request. “I was in Indiana visiting relatives and taking a 24-hour Internet break! And yes, I feel much better now. I don’t know if it’s traveling or talking to new people or getting off the Internet, but I feel more driven and focused . . . Powering down is immensely helpful. Afterward, you feel refreshed and better able to handle the Internet’s flow of information.”

But no matter what any blogger, researcher or your Facebook doppelganger thinks, what ultimately counts is the boss’s opinion, no?

For this part of the story, I polled two higher-ups to see what they really thought of their subordinates’ social networking and smart phone use while on the job. Both asked that their real names and organizations not be used.

Lauren is a 38-year-old creative director who manages a team of graphic designers, account managers, web developers and media buyers.

Her employees are allowed one hour per day where they can access social networking sites freely, and then they are blocked once they reach this quota.

Everyone in the creative department used to have 100% access (now only herself and the Internet marketing manager do), but when a few employees were bellyaching about their workload and Lauren herself had to pick up the slack 2-3 hours every day, she had IT run a report to see how people were spending their time.
“I found out my two biggest [Internet] abusers were on [social networking and other non-work related sites] up to four hours a day. Everyone needs a break to clear their mind, especially if you are having a creative block, but more than an hour during work time is too much. It’s bad because if something falls through the cracks it’s a reflection of all of us and the complaints come straight to me.”

Of course even with restricted access on office computers, employees can now just sneak it on their ever-present smart phones.

“The best is when I see their Facebook updates during work hours,” she says. “I typically wouldn’t care, but the employee who I notice doing it the most is the same one that complains she has too much work to do! So that does piss me off.”

Taking a breather to watch a double rainbow YouTube video is utterly unheard of at Steve’s office.
An underwriting specialist for a major insurance company, Steve says all personal email is blocked at his company and employees are strongly urged not to access websites unless they have a specific business purpose for doing so.

“As long as it has a business purpose, it is acceptable. Personal access is discouraged and inappropriate use can lead to employee termination,” he says.

You’ll probably have a tough time convincing a boss like Steve that social media has much merit, however. The 56-year-old doesn’t use any of the networking sites personally and tells me “I don’t have a business need for these at the present time. To me personally, I don’t want to be bothered with endless interruptions and useless information.”

Policies and ideologies such as these run the risk of alienating talented Gen Y employees like Jeff, a 29-year-old bioscience customer service rep who insists on making work fun.

An example of this would be the amusing dress code he devised for his department: Turtleneck Tuesdays, Thargyle Thursdays, and one day when coworkers looked perplexed at his head-to-toe black ensemble, he proclaimed it Walk the Line Wednesday.

It’s a small thing that may even cut into productivity as employees take a few minutes to chuckle at each other’s daily sartorial decisions, but it builds teamwork he says.

“It helps create culture in the office, puts people in a better mood,” he says. “People are more willing to work when they’re in a better mood. If you’re having a shitty day, especially at the office, you’re really only going to want to do the bare minimum. But if you’re having a good time, you’re more willing to take that extra step and put a better effort forth.”

The great irony of it all?

While companies may try to restrict social networking, some not even allowing you to post where you work on your personal profile or to even have a profile in extreme cases, it’s absolutely essential for young professionals to be active in social media if they’re looking to advance their career.

When I asked social media guru Caitlin McCabe how important it was for YP’s to participate online in order to get ahead, her answer was an emphatic “Very!”

“You can set yourself apart from your peers by creating a presence online in the industry you’re in,” she says. “Even if you’re not being published on major online networks you can still show that you’re involved by offering insightful comments and sharing great information. If an employer Googles you, being active online in your industry groups, tweets, etc. will show up in your rankings.”

In McCabe’s opinion, social networkers can be extremely useful to a company by generating leads online, creating awareness for their company by writing articles or participating in the comments, learning the newest tips and tools for their industry and networking with potential customers and clients.

It can be equally beneficial for the individual by allowing us to participate in conversations with our favorite author, CEO or mentor no matter where we live. These connections help us stay ahead of the curve in our industry, get interviews for jobs that aren’t even posted, and lets us ask questions and get answers from top thinkers instantly.

“My advice is if you are an employee who likes the online space, then ask that it be made a part of your job description,” she says. “Attend conferences to learn more and show your boss brand examples of companies like yours that empower their employees to take the lead in social media for their team.”

“As long as the jobs are getting done I don’t think it hurts a company,” she explains. “People have been taking breaks at a water cooler to chat about work related and non-work related topics for a long time.

The key is not to restrict use but to let employees play a role in the online presence of the brand. If there are no guidelines, of course someone is going to go out there and maybe make the company look bad. If the company comes out and says ‘This is how we’d like to be represented online’ it’s a win-win for everyone.”

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