Social Media in the Workplace: Where Does It Fit In?

With more organizations trying to mitigate the negative impacts of worker's use of social media on daily productivity, researchers are moving to better understand all of the effects — positive and negative.

by / July 14, 2016
Eyragon Eidam/Government Technology

Love it or hate it, there is no denying social media is here to stay — at home, in public and even in the daily incarcerations of your drab beige cubicle. It isn’t going anywhere. 

And when it comes to the workplace, many employers have clamped down on access to your precious tweets, your multiple Instagram accounts (one for meals, the other for your “larger than life” daily life) and your witty stream of consciousness that is your Facebook page by blocking the popular sites. But this doesn’t stop you from plugging in from your tablet-sized smartphone. 

The bosses that make up the cruel overlord class have been trying desperately to find a way to cut you off from the digital world you love so much to keep you engaged and, well, working. But does tuning into Twitter, or Facebook, or Instagram or Snapchat, or Myspace (for those stuck in 2003) really matter in the larger scheme of things? 

A recently released study looked at this very subject and found that, while there are downsides to having a connected workforce sharing their selfies and stances on the latest issue, there are also benefits nestled in the ones and zeros behind the likes, shares and retweets.

According to the data collected through surveys, the Pew Research Center has determined that social media plays a number of roles in the workplace. Lee Rainie, director of the center’s Internet, Science and Society wing, said people use the digital mediums in a number of ways — ranging from mental escape to solving work problems. 

Of the more than 2,000 people sampled, 34 percent of respondents said social media provides a mental break from work, 24 percent reported using the tools to make or support professional connections, and 12 percent used it to answer work-related questions.

“The broader story, of course, is that for many workers, social media is part of their lives,” Rainie said. “Sometimes it means they are doing traditionally social things at work, but sometimes it means they are adding to their work-related activities by using these new tools.”

Though the social platforms enabled better workplace connections, they also came with some divided results as well. According to the data, roughly a quarter of respondents (23 percent) found information online that improved their perception of a co-worker, while 29 percent reported finding information that led their opinion the opposite way.

“Workplaces are networks now. The old Industrial Era structures that were very hierarchical and very organized — prescribed and organized — are giving way to the fluidity of networks. And so, it’s a natural thing in the age of the Internet searches and now in the age of social media searches, people are going to look each other up…,” Rainie said. “There is not a sort of one-directional impact here.”

In the bigger picture, the study reports that organizations with social media policies are less likely to have their employees using the communications tools for non-work-related activities. While 30 percent of people were likely to use social media to take a mental break in a workplace with a policy, 40 percent of unregulated said they would do the same.

But policies also had an impact on the workplace benefits of social media tools. Of those regulated by a workplace policy, only 16 percent said they would use the platforms to solve work problems, as compared to 25 percent of unregulated individuals.

“There are lots of organizations that are struggling with the right relationship they should have with their workers and social media because it’s a new set of opportunities, a new set of potential perils and a new set of realities that companies have to live with and workers are adjusting to,” Rainie told Government Technology. “If people work for places that have rules, they are just a little bit more discreet and they are a little bit less likely to use social media for non-work purposes. And so these rules do have an effect on people’s behaviors.”

The research director said organizational policy can range from how and if it is used during work hours to how employees generally conduct themselves outside company walls. Rainie said bad behavior online can translate into poor perception of an organization and negatively impact business as a result.

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as  assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.