Motivated by spurious assertions of lost productivity, companies worldwide have blocked employee access to social media sites, ranging from blogs to social networks, from video sharing sites to podcasts.
These decisions are often made in a vacuum by IT departments buying into concerns raised by companies that sell blocking software or Human Resources departments concerned about productivity and litigation. Rarely are such decisions made after conducting a risk-benefit analysis, since such a study would surface clear benefits to organizations that allow employees to visit such sites during work time.
Blocked access has led to some ironic situations. In one case, an employee working on the company’s media efforts was unable to access sites he used to do his work. In another, employees were unable to visit content their own company was using in a marketing campaign on social networking sites. The consequences, though, are far more serious than these eyebrow-raising stories.
The mindless, knee-jerk act of blocking access for all employees led me last September to launch a grass-roots campaign, Stop Blocking. The campaign comprises a blog (for updated news and information), a wiki (for answers to the arguments in support of blocking), a petition and badges anyone can put on their own blogs or websites to support the effort.
Stop Blocking’s goal is purely educational. Companies like Websense have a vested interest in funding studies — specious though they may be — to support the need to keep employees away from social media sites. Opponents of blocking, conversely, have no funding and no products or services to sell. Stop Blocking will, I hope, become a central resource, a repository of material that will help people make the case to keep access open — or to unblock content that has already been put off limits.
The productivity argument
While several issues prompt companies to block access, worker productivity has emerged as the core argument against letting employees visit whatever sites they want. The studies — from Websense, Challenger Gray and Chrsistmas, and others — all take the same approach:
- Calculate the number of hours a typical employee spends on these non-work-related sites
- Assign a dollar value to an hour of that employee’s time
- Multiply the hours by the dollar value
- Multiply the result by the number of employees in the country
The results, taken on their face, produce plenty of cause for concern. As early as 2005, Websense was throwing around lost productivity numbers totaling $178 billion. In Australia, Surfcontrol (another company that benefits from the fear it creates) asserted that Facebook visits alone cost Australian businesses $5 billion per year, while consulting firm Peninsula claimed Facebook is costing UK businesses 130 million pounds daily.
As a result, according to security company Barracuda Networks, two-thirds of companies plan to restrict access to the Net over the next year, an increase of nearly 23% over this year. About half of the company’s customers already block access to social networking sites (25% block just MySpace, 6.3% block just Facebook, and 19.3% block both). These represent just the tip of the iceberg; there are hundreds of such studies.
These numbers, however, don’t stand up to scrutiny. Not factored into the studies are issues like these:
- Few knowledge workers put in only eight-hour days. An hour spent surfing in a 12-hour day does not represent lost productivity.
- Knowledge workers do their jobs in places other than the office. Being connected by Blackberries, email, and cell phones means you’re never really off the job. One parody site calculated the cost if a worker spends an hour of home time doing work. The result: “$6 billion in lost recreational time and work done essentially for free.”
- The assumption that there is no work value in spending time on these sites is flawed. Smart companies know their employees are brand ambassadors on social sites just as they are when spending time with friends, family, and non-work peers. Other sites provide education and information, while others allow employees to create or join networks that pay dividends when questions or issues arise that can be addressed by others in the network. Consider, for example, the question feature on LinkedIn, where a network of professional colleagues can come to your aid when you issue a query.
- Among knowledge workers, productivity cannot be calculated on an hour-by-hour basis. That’s fine for assembly line workers, but knowledge worker output is measured based on work accomplished: Is it on time? Is it quality work?
Other arguments for blocking
Three other arguments support companies’ no-access policies:
- Infection — Companies worry about infected networks resulting from viruses, trojans, malware and other illicit code inadvertently introduced when employees surf social networking sites. Few actual instances of such infection have been reported, however; the issue is more accurately associated with email attachments and software downloads. One hopes these companies also keep their virus definitions up to date.
- Litigation — Inappropriate employee behavior can lead others to file suit against the company. Of course, this is not new to online networks. An employee gazing at a Playboy centerfold could lead to a sexual harrassment charge. I’m not aware of a single company that inspects every purse, briefcase, and backpack for pornography as employees enter the building, yet that’s the real-world equivalent of blocking access.
- Bandwidth — There can be no arguing that the conduct of business is the primary task of any company’s computer networks. Some companies have worried that excessive employee use of social media — particularly audio and video sites that consume larger amounts of bandwidth — will slow down the networks. In the current era, however, companies are plainly foolish if they do not increase bandwidth to accommodate the ordinary, day-to-day uses to which the Internet is put by employees, even just for work-related purposes.
In short, the genuine potential deleterious effects of non-work-related surfing should be addressed as a management issue, not a technical one. Just as supervisors are accountable for identifying other performance issues with their employees, they should know how to spot the signs that an employee is abusing online privileges. The consequences need to be doled out by exception, targeting abusers, rather than taking the all-too-easy way out of simply blocking access for everybody. Clear, well-communicated policies also help.
The case for unrestricted access
Even if companies can point to the cost of genuine abuses of productivity, diminished network effectiveness, and lawsuit costs, when balanced against the upside of employee access, a strong case can be made to let employees go where they will.
Engagement is one of the hottest topics in HR, employee communication, and management circles these days. Overwhelming research suggests that companies with large populations of highly engaged employees return double-digit growth, while those with mostly actively disengaged employees produce zero to negative growth.
A variety of factors contribute to employee engagement, but trust is a foundation without which none of the other conditions can exist. Nothing kills trust faster than telling employees, “We need you. We recruited you because your skills and experience are vital if we are to meet our strategic objectives. But we don’t trust you as far as we can throw you.”
Only a small percentage of employees will abuse the privilege; it is counterproductive to punish all employees for their transgressions. They should be managed by exception and everybody else should be provided with the unfettered access that will produce high levels of trust, leading to heightened job satisfaction, commitment, and engagement.
Recruiters invest a significant portion of their budget attending job fairs and visiting campuses because that’s where the prospects are. Today, the prospects are also online and in social networks. Smart companies are engaged in social networks in order to identify the best prospects, have conversations with them, and provide the resources that will lead them to apply for employment. TMP Worldwide has initiated an employee referral program on Facebook, for example, and Ernst & Young has a Facebook page aimed at college students looking toward their first job. These are just two examples of a rapidly growing trend that also includes contributing recruiting-focused videos to sites like YouTube.
A number of companies are using social networks as a channel for getting new hires up to speed quickly. T-Mobile, the mobile phone company in the US, for example, use Facebook as a gathering place for new hires before they actually join the company. Quoted in a Personnel Today article, HR Operations manager Penny Davis explained, “We set up a group on Facebook in May for the 2007 intake so that they could network informally with each other and the T-Mobile recruitment team before their September start date, enabling them to get to know each other and air concerns in a friendly, supportive environment.”
Facebook is also the site of informal employee networks for companies like Serena Software, whose CEO, Jeremy Burton, believes employee teams are made stronger when employees can socialize online without the constraints of enterprise systems designed primarily for work purposes. (You can hear an interview I conducted with Burton here.)
Employees as brand ambassadors
On my travel blog, I complained about an off-airport parking company that left me standing at the curb for an hour while repeatedly telling me a shuttle would pick me up in five minutes. Within hours, a Park ‘N Fly employee had left a comment apologizing, insisting that Park ‘N Fly is a good company working hard to improve its customer relations, and offering me free parking vouchers as a form of compensation. This employee was not a customer service rep or a member of the PR staff. Clearly, Park ‘N Fly employees are empowered to solve customer problems wherever they encounter them. Had blogs been blocked, this employee never would have found my complaint and I would still be chiding Park ‘N Fly instead of singing their praises.
These are not the only benefits of allowing employees unfettered access to social media. Employees engaged online have identified business opportunities, brought potential crises to light, and improved productivity through quick access to resources that go way beyond those available within the company.
While I anticipate no slowdown in the release of studies that purport to quantify the damage open access causes, it’s time to treat this as a management issue, not a technology issue. The smart companies that make this distinction are the ones that will reap the benefits.