Jun 12 2013

Social Media: Employee Appetites Outpace Employer Policy

New survey illustrates significant divide when it comes to the perception (and reality) of the benefits of social tools in the workplace.

Social tools are the latest in a long line of innovations that enhance the way people communicate and interact with one another. But these products and services are often a bone of contention between workers and management in businesses.

Employees view social media as a means to more efficiently share information and collaborate. Employers, on the other hand, are often skeptical regarding its efficacy in the workplace.

According to a survey commissioned by Microsoft of 9,908 information workers across 32 countries, a significant number of managers still view this latest communications “advancement” with a jaundiced eye because of security and productivity concerns. A mere 30 percent of respondents said executives embrace the use of social tools in the workplace, while 34 percent spoke of how their companies underrate and often actively hinder the use of those tools.

Employees, by contrast, take a decidedly more positive view: 77 percent of those surveyed said these tools increase productivity, while another 40 percent said social services make the workplace more collaborative — a good thing, considering that an equal number of respondents said their offices aren’t collaborative enough.

In many instances, reticence regarding the employment of social media in the workplace comes from the top, particularly on the IT side. For example, a year ago, BizTech reported that only 10 percent of Fortune 250 CIOs engaged in social media. Sure, that number has probably grown, but clearly not enough to be reflected more generally worldwide in the Microsoft survey, where 40 percent of respondents indicated that IT workers are a barrier to accessing social tools.

To fill the void, 44 percent of workers turn to colleagues to learn about (and discover) new social technologies. Meanwhile, a third of the repondents said they would pay for social tools and services themselves, if they thought it would increase productivity.

A Net Positive for Business?

True, not all social media activity in the office is business related, just as not every phone call is about selling the company’s latest widget. A clear and transparent social media policy is one way to tip the at-work balance away from the personal and toward the workplace.

First, take a step back and briefly examine how social transparency affects business from the outside in. BizTech must-read IT blogger and social media marketer Brian Solis labels social-media-conscious customers as “connected consumers.”

As companies have discovered, social media is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways in customer service: It is wonderful when people publicly praise your products and services, but not so great when they’re bashed for all to see.

But as BizTech online content manager Ricky Ribeiro points out, “The great thing about social media’s transparency is that the company’s response is just as visible as the customer’s complaint.” That’s a net positive for businesses that engage customers honestly and straightforwardly. Companies should do the same with their employees.

As social tools continue to penetrate the marketplace, connected consumers, as employees, have brought those tools further into the workplace for personal use, but also as a means to — for example — improve communication with colleagues and partners, share documents and network. By taking the lessons learned from engaging connected consumers, businesses should be able to move the social needle in the right direction internally as well.

One way to do that is to develop a comprehensive yet easy-to-follow set of policies, with input from all stakeholders, especially employees. Then, take the time to educate them as to what is and is not appropriate to share over social media. It’s also important to put into place a series of rewards for adherence and escalating consequences for policy violations.

A clear set of flexible guidelines will go a long way toward bridging the divide between employee–employer perceptions of social tools and services. The policy should allow workers to feel free to collaborate with people inside and outside the company, while maintaining the integrity — and security — of company data.