As regular readers of my blogs will know, I’m a staunch advocate of the benefits of social media at work. For instance I believe that aside from the fantastic benefits that emerge from letting employees engage more often with customers, use of social media also affords employees a brain break, thus allowing them to dive back into their work with renewed vigour.
I’m going to buck the trend in this article however and talk about how social media can damage your productivity. Except it’s not really just about social media so much as about the constant drone of interruptions that litter our daily lives in the typical open plan office.
A particular bug bear of mine is the, often noisy, telephone conversations other people have, but I’ll focus instead on the electronic disruptions because they’re quite so pervasive in not only our working lives but our home lives as well.
Traditionally this argument has centred around emails, and the disruption they cause to our thoughts when the little icon pops up notifying us that we’ve got a new message, but with social media this feedback addiction has multiplied considerably.
“Some industries are so highly volatile that people need to be connected all the time, but most of us overexaggerate our own importance,” said Dalton Conley, dean for the social services at New York University and author of “Elsewhere” (Pantheon, 2009).
“Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy — if we’re always available, then we’re expected to always be available.”
Of course the reality is that most of us don’t need to be ‘always on’, and the world will keep on going if we don’t respond to that retweet or poke in the next five minutes.
The main reason for social media boosting productivity is that it gives employees a chance to chill out and relax their minds. Being always on however can have the opposite effect.
The thing is, it’s kinda tough to do this on your own, just as it’s hard to get out of the long hours culture that sees us all working (or at least sitting at our desks) longer and longer. It’s hard to take unilateral action without the company having your back.
With more and more of us taking our smartphones, and therefore our work, on holiday with us, to bed with us, and goodness knows where else, this is a change that needs to come from the top down.
An experiment by the Boston Consulting Group showed the benefits you can achieve by doing this. Participants in the experiment were ordered to turn off all means of contacting them for one night a week and then report back on progress once per week at a team meeting.
To begin with, many were reluctant to participate.
“Some said they didn’t know what they would do with a night off,”
As a safety net, each ‘off-call’ member had another colleague covering for them and receiving their emails so they could respond to anything urgent. In the rare event of a real emergency that no one else could handle, the off-call person would be contacted.
What’s interesting about the results are that they proved considerably more positive when everyone was on board. Team members felt empowered and expressed increased satisfaction with work and their work-life balance. It wasn’t just the time-off that benefited employees but the meetings each week enabled real collaboration on how to achieve better work-life balance.
An interesting real life case study of this can be found at Volkswagen. Earlier this year they agreed with staff that if they accessed their Blackberry 30 minutes after their shift ended that their access to the email server would be cut, only to be restored 30 minutes before their next shift.
Such initiatives will never happen without managers being on board though. Employee engagement is something many managers talk about at the same time as demanding ever longer hours from employees. Now’s the time to walk the walk as well as talking the talk.