Social Tech in the Workplace

I had a discussion with some older business leaders last week, and the subject of social technology in the workplace came up. It got me thinking, and I figured I might as well think out loud here.

The conversation addressed how people stay in touch with such things as Line, WhatsApp, and WeChat, as well as platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and others. There was some pretty broad generalizing of the Millennials, who accept these things as the norm, Gen-Xers who have adapted to them, and Boomers who are not big fans and tend to roll their eyes a lot. Their were some questions about etiquette, employee productivity, and different perspectives on what is appropriate in the workplace and what is not.

Let me say this first of all: in a meeting, the electronics need to be put aside. If you are meeting with employees, whether one on one or in a group, they should be focusing on the discussion and not on a conversation with someone else (and so should you!). Frankly, I am of the opinion the same is true in social settings (uh oh, old guy attitude coming!)…if you are out with friends, focus on the ones who are there, not the ones who aren’t. Every new communication technology has led to etiquette issues, from talking on a speakerphone in your low-walled cubicle, to ensuring everyone in your subway car hears your cell phone conversation, to sending out an SMS during a job interview (though with regard to that last one…I mean, c’mon! Seriously?). If you see your employees doing something stupid, you should counsel them on their behavior rather than letting them continue. If their parents did not teach them, then sadly, maybe you need to.

There was also a concern raised that people are being paid to work, not to Tweet or update their blog or things like that. If you are at work, you should work, right?

Of course, that also suggests that if you’re at home you SHOULDN’T be working, and the truth is, that dividing line has been blurred more and more in recent years (often by the same technology we are talking about here). So it may be understandable that people who find themselves working outside when they’re supposed to be on personal time may feel justified in using work time for personal issues. And honestly, how different is it to be talking on Twitter rather than talking around the coffee pot? Whether they are using the company’s bandwidth or the company’s break room, they are still using company property. Taking a break from work for a few minutes can help your employees reenergize and do better work in the end…that’s why we allow coffee breaks and smoke breaks. Where you need to step in is when the personal stuff becomes the norm rather than the break. And honestly, you do not need new technology for that problem to arise. Look around your office and you will find someone bothering their coworkers about one thing or another having nothing to do with work, and they’re not using any technology at all.

You need to realize that as you encourage collaboration in your workplace, your folks may be using these technologies to share work-related ideas, ether within the company or with peers and friends in the same field. That can be a good thing and lead to better results, though you want to be sure they aren’t giving away corporate secrets. But yeah, that’s something you generally want to encourage, and if they are using their own technology rather than you having to buy a system, well, that’s good for you, right?

A few years ago I gave a guest lecture at a university in the US. One of the students in the back kept coming up with some interesting questions, and a friend of mine who was sitting back there next to her told me later that she was on Instant Messenger telling a friend about my lecture, and the friend was the one sending in the questions. Social technology can add a lot more to your working environment if you use it effectively.

As with any technology, as with any method of working, the key question is “are your employees getting their jobs done to the best of their abilities?” If they are, but you find they do not need to spend much time working in order to do that, then maybe you need to rethink your structure rather than worrying about who’s tweeting. You may find these social technologies helping more than they hurt, but you might have to overcome some of your own biases in order to see that objectively. And of course, this is more likely in creative fields than in, say, customer service. As one leader in our conversation suggested, “You probably don’t want to wait for the guy behind the counter at Starbucks to finish sending a text before making your coffee.” But remember, if you are in a knowledge industry of any kind, you’re working in a different world from customer service, and you as a leader need to adjust your style accordingly.