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The Social Networking Dilemma

Advice July 31, 2008

The Social Networking Dilemma


Does too much play and not enough work make Jack an unproductive boy? With a growing number of companies becoming concerned about staff spending excessive amounts of working time on personal Internet activities, HR departments are under pressure to find a workable solution to maintain productivity without alienating their workforce. Simon Norris of Temperus looks at the options. 

You can’t stop thinking about it.  You wonder what has changed since you last saw it. That urgent document you need to write is the last thing on your mind.  You are impatient; you just cannot wait for your next fix.  All classic signs that you have an addiction to Facebook. And you’re not alone.  Office workers the length and breadth of the country are spending increasing amounts of their work time on social networking sites, resulting in a growing concern among employers and human resource departments about staff productivity in the workplace.

Some organisations are already responding to the issue, adopting a range of different approaches.  In a recent survey of HR managers, two thirds said that their companies blocked access to social networking sites.  Yet many of the solutions on offer can themselves be problematic.  A Nottinghamshire hospital is one of the many organisations that has chosen to ban employees from accessing Facebook at work, but created a reputation-damaging backlash from staff, which even created a webpage to voice their protests.  Taking a tough stance is not as straightforward as it might appear, and HR managers need to tread carefully.

Many organisations are still ignoring the whole issue; whether through ignorance or indolence.  But all the signs are this is a problem that is only going to become more widespread.  Managers who fail to take appropriate action risk creating resentment among diligent staff who are picking up the slack from colleagues who are busy with blogging, instant messaging or social networking.  Secondly, for organisations that lack clear policies, guidelines or directives on internet use, it’s that much harder to define what is inappropriate or –  should the need arise –  take disciplinary action against staff who abuse the trust placed in them.

We all have to accept that social networking sites, blogs and instant messaging are here to stay.  So what solutions are available, and what are the pros and cons of each?

Outright Banning

For the vast majority of organisations an outright ban on Web use is simply not realistic.  Despite the deluge of headlines about the Internet damaging productivity, it’s important to remember that it is also an essential business tool and removing access can be hugely counterproductive.  

Selective Restrictions

The Nottingham option – and an increasingly popular choice with senior management – is to use technology to block access to selected sites. But this can be fraught with problems.  Firstly, a great deal of time and resource is needed to administer the policy. A recent survey by Computer Weekly showed that 45 per cent of IT managers said workloads have increased as a result of policing social networking sites.

Secondly, employers commonly have no way of measuring the effectiveness of the restrictions. This is important, because it is often possible for staff to find their way around restrictions by using ‘proxy sites’.  These freely-available websites replicate the content of popular sites, like MySpace and YouTube, under a different domain name, bypassing restrictions placed within the company’s network.  A simple search of ‘facebook proxy’ provides a taste of the thousands of options available, and a sense of the challenge involved in maintaining an effective blocking policy.

Blocking other non-Web Internet use can be even more of a challenge.  Instant Messaging programs, for example, are often skilfully designed to negotiate their way around restrictions.  So your staff may spend less time on MySpace but more time chatting with their friends.

Blocking can also prove to be highly inconvenient to staff, who might need to make frequent requests to unblock sites that are ’blacklisted’, and doesn’t take into account that some sites have business and non-business applications.  An online newspaper may provide the latest updates on the business issues of the day, but also offers lifestyle and sport content that can seriously eat into the working day.  Also, as the Nottinghamshire hospital trust discovered, blocking can make you deeply and publicly unpopular with your staff.

Using time-selective blocking – with restrictions lifted at specific times of the day – can provide some freedom to surf.  Yet this can also limit flexibility, requiring all staff to follow the same rigid timetable.  Work may grind to a halt as everyone checks their webmail at the same time, placing strain on the organisation’s network.  Meanwhile an over-running conference call can put paid to that day’s opportunity to check personal mail or an online bank account, creating resentment and a reluctance to schedule anything within half an hour of their allocated surf-time.

Activity Monitoring

If it is done covertly, monitoring the PC-based activities of a workforce can risk alienating staff and create an unhealthy atmosphere of distrust in the office.  Secret monitoring can also have serious implications in relation to the Data Protection Act, the Human Rights Act, and the Code of Practice, to name but a few.

Open and transparent monitoring, however, can offer employers a flexible and manageable approach – provided it is done thoughtfully and sympathetically, with the interests of both employer and employee in mind.

By measuring the amount of time staff spend using different websites or applications and feeding this information back to employees in a clear and straightforward manner, a self-regulating culture can be created in which staff can adapt their own working practices to ensure that their employer’s policies are adhered to.

Staff are free to plan their own time in a responsible manner.  Private surfing during lunch breaks becomes possible, no matter what time the lunch break occurs.  Those who choose to spend more time on personal activities during the day can make up time by starting earlier, working later or taking a shorter lunch break.  Employers can identify significant transgressions and deal with them on an individual basis without restricting the activities of others.  Use of sites that may constitute either work activity, or non-work related activity can be measured, and action taken if required.

But as well as providing statistics relating to non-work activities, such monitoring can provide employers with a wealth of information about the performance of their businesses.  By comparing the working patterns of different teams, for example, they can assess the effect of different workloads on productivity.  By looking at the changing patterns of productivity by time of day or day of week, activities can be scheduled to ensure that time is used as efficiently as possible.  The effectiveness of home workers or those located in remote offices can also be assessed.

Many staff – and employers – shudder at the prospect of having their working patterns logged and recorded.  However there is increasing recognition that employers need to ensure that the trust placed in their staff is not abused.  Faced with the alternative solution of site blocking, most will recognise that monitoring provides a more flexible, trusting and employee-friendly solution.  Employers can ensure that policies are adhered to and benefit from the wealth of information provided to help ensure that their organisations are managed as effectively as possible.

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