Your Employer Is Finally Getting Real About Social Media in the Office

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — If your employees are more likely to take a Facebook break than a smoke break during the work day, you're not alone. Although the regulation of Internet usage at the office has never been a clear-cut issue, today most companies allow at least some access to social media, personal emails and other nonwork-related sites.

Many small businesses view social media as a necessity more than a distraction — in 2009, just 14% of companies maintained a brand presence on Facebook, but today, 61% of companies have a professional Facebook page where they interact with customers, relay news or announce deals and discounts, according to a study conducted by staffing firm Spherion.

"It wasn't too many years ago we didn't allow people access to Facebook, and now most companies have someone assigned to bolster their presence on Facebook. Employees are often encouraged to go on frequently, engaging with customers and participating in the conversation of the day," says Sandy Mazur, division president for Spherion.

Small businesses understand that they have to be visible, Mazur says, but what they struggle with still is how to make social media accessible to a wider employee base. According to the Spherion study, 45% of employers believe access to social media allows their workers to be more productive, and 41% of employers use social media outlets to foster a team environment.

"Social media is here to stay, and employers are realizing that access to that information and data helps people to feel more connected in their personal lives, which increases that work/life balance that's so critical," Mazur says. "But right now companies are embracing it more externally than they are internally — they know they need to have the visibility for their company, but they may not allow employees to have ready access to it during the work day."

At IT company Cisco , employees are given freedom to access personal social media accounts, which are sometimes used for work purposes, says Brett Belding, senior manager of IT mobility services.

"We encourage the use of both internal and external social media by all our employees. We have developed practical guidelines on how to use corporate and personal accounts," Belding says. "There are some employees, like me, who use the same account for both personal and work-related communication. I think this actually humanizes the company and showcases personality. We think it's important to be able to blend the two."

Increasingly, companies are seeing that the restriction of Internet access hurts workplace morale, says John Martin, partner at the law firm Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough.

"Most employers have reached the conclusion that it's unrealistic to ask an employee to completely suspend their digital life when they enter the workplace," Martin says. "The reality is that if something is restricted on a desktop, mobile devices are completely integrated into the daily aspect of every employee's life, and they're not going to leave those behind when they come to work."

Since employees who want a digital distraction need look no further than a pants pocket or purse to find one, Martin says the best strategy for curtailing social media use is a simple reminder that Internet activity on all company devices can be tracked.

"The most important thing any employer can communicate is that whatever you do on the Internet through a company-owned device can be tracked either in real time or after the fact," Martin says. "That can be as big a deterrent as anything else."

One deterrent that should never be used is to completely block all external Internet content, Belding says.

"The approach shouldn't be to block content through a firewall. Rather, employers need to understand that today's employees live a blended lifestyle that can involve accessing personal materials during the work day," Belding says. "We don't mind if you check your Facebook during the day, because we know sometimes work requires you to take a 9 p.m. call. Cisco measures individuals on what you deliver, not how many hours you sit in a chair."

Measuring employees on performance has never been more important than it is in today's digital age, says David Rosenbaum, president of IT consulting firm Real-Time Computer Services.

"The real issue is a management issue, not an Internet access issue," Rosenbaum says. "In many ways, Internet distractions are not materially different from old-style-media distractions like employees reading the newspaper at their desks, or browsing catalogs or spending time talking at the water cooler.  The only difference with the Internet is that browsing and interacting can consume exorbitant amounts of time, and can be achieved surreptitiously."

With that said, productivity in the workplace is at an all-time high, Mazur notes. Even with more access to social media, the American workforce is still "highly productive," meaning employees on the whole aren't ignoring their job duties in favor of Facebook.

"Access to quick info and data is a given in today's environment," Mazur says. "Employees are going to be getting texts from kids and messages on Facebook during the day, and they're going to be happier when their employer trusts them enough to allow access to that type of content."

— By Kathryn Tuggle

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