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Twitter and Facebook: The New Tools of Productivity or Distraction

The argument is strong on either side of the case: do social networks increase or decrease productivity on the job?

It’s a landmark case where the decision will ultimately determine the fate of business within respective online communities of influence. Perhaps however, it’s also a decision that we may never realize.

On one side, the focus of employees and the output of their time and energy, is essential to the livelihood of the company that employs them. Unregulated distractions, especially those of an addictive nature such as real-time consumption and interaction on the Web, are potentially disruptive.

In 2009, several studies reported on the diversion of social networks and the decrease in productivity as well as the security risks they posed to corporate IP and overall production, efficiencies, and output.

As Caroline McCarthy reported for CNET late last year, Robert Half Technology found that 54% of U.S. companies block social networks completely and another 19% only permit it for business purposes. Of that, 10% of companies surveyed permit social networking for personal use and 16% allow “limited” personal use.

In a recent issue of Wired Magazine, Brendan Koerner shared two studies, one performed by Nucleus Research that revealed that Facebook shaves 1.5% off total office productivity and another by Morse that estimated on-the-job social networking costs British companies $2.2 billion a year.

In the context of security, Sophos published its Security Threat Report 2010, which revealed the social networks believed to pose the most prominent security risks.

Sophos reports a 70% rise in the number of organizations experiencing spam and malware attacks via social networks in 2009. And, 72% are of the mindset that employee behavior in social networks could endanger their business security, which represents an increase from 66% in the previous report.

Here’s where things become very real….More than half report receiving spam via social networks, and over a third claim to have received malware.  The total number of businesses targeted for spam, phishing and malware through social networking sites also increased dramatically, with spam rocketing from 33.4% in April to 57% in December.

According to the study, just over 60% of those surveyed named Facebook as representing the largest risk. MySpace followed with 18% and Twitter trailed closely with 15%.

Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for Sophos, said in a statement published on CNET

The truth is that the security team at Facebook works hard to counter threats on their site–it’s just that policing 350 million users can’t be an easy job for anyone,” “But there is no doubt that simple changes could make Facebook users safer. For instance, when Facebook rolled out its new recommended privacy settings late last year, it was a backwards step, encouraging many users to share their information with everybody on the Internet.

Three Sides to Every Story

As goes the saying, there are three sides to every story, one side, the other side, and the truth or resolution, somewhere in the middle…

Innovation and technology have always been the flashpoint of debate and concern over productivity.

The telephone…

The water cooler…(less technology, I know, but just making a point)

Desktop PCs and eventually personal notebooks…

Email…

Web 1.0…

Minesweeper and Solitaire…

Cell phones…

Telecommuting…

It’s a long list and the reality is that distraction is nothing new in the workplace.

In the same Wired article that opened with compelling data by Nucleus and Morse presenting the case against social networks in the workplace, the author suddenly slammed on the brakes, sharply turned the wheel, and jumped on the gas leading us suddenly in a new and enlightening direction. The article, after all, was entitled, How Twitter and Facebook Make us More Productive.

Studies that accuse social networks of reducing productivity assume that time spent microblogging is time strictly wasted. But that betrays an ignorance of the creative process. Humans weren’t designed to maintain a constant focus on assigned tasks. We need periodic breaks to relieve our conscious minds of the pressure to perform — pressure that can lock us into a single mode of thinking. Musing about something else for a while can clear away the mental detritus, letting us see an issue through fresh eyes, a process that creativity researchers call incubation.

Brilliant. And of course, everything in moderation…

Wired quotes the authors of Creativity and the Mind, a book that blends leading scientific research with experiences to help readers unlock their creative potential…

People are more successful if we force them to move away from a problem or distract them temporarily, observe the authors of Creativity and the Mind, a landmark text in the psychology and neuroscience of creativity. They found that regular breaks enhance problem-solving skills significantly, in part by making it easier for workers to sift through their memories in search of relevant clues.

Last year, researchers at Australia’s University of Melbourne discovered that taking time to visit “websites of interest” actually increased the ability to concentrate, boosting productivity by 9%. As part of the study, the scientists introduced a dedicated category of study, “workplace Internet leisure browsing,” or WILB and they believe that this activity helps keep the mind fresh.

Dr. Brent Coker, from the Melbourne Department of Management and Marketing, shared controversial insight from the study…

People who do surf the Internet for fun at work – within a reasonable limit of less than 20% of their total time in the office – are more productive by about 9% than those who don’t.

I took to social networks during and outside of work hours to ask the question, Do you believe that social networks decrease productivity in the workplace?

– Yes! I find myself wasting getting sucked in to the stream

– No, in fact, it helps me reset to jump back to work refreshed

– I’m not sure yet

As expected, I immediately received numerous responses that suggested the inclusion of a caveat that addresses those who are employed to participate in social networks as part of their job.

To keep things simple, I noted that if you engage in social networks professionally, the conversations and links you encounter in online work also pose as distractions and in some cases clicks can lead us further away from the task at hand.

This informal poll revealed that out of 785 responses, just over 49% of respondents do not believe social networks decrease productivity. However, 37% admit that they feel that their online activity leads them away from their primary focus. Notably 14% aren’t sure which way to lean yet.

Engaging strategically within communities of relevance with individuals who represent meaningful value to the company in various ways is already proving effective, lucrative, and instrumental to engendering goodwill, loyalty and advocacy. Any businesses affected by consumers with access to the internet will need to grant access to prominent tools, services, and networks to listen, learn, respond, lead, and contribute value. True collaboration in the next web will be based, in large part, on internal and external participation.

One could successfully argue that social networks, including Facebook and Twitter, realign focus, inspire creativity, and spur advocacy by introducing outside elements into existing culture and process. The top down support of such activity is particularly motivating and as such, harnesses the wisdom and energy of the crowds into an internal transformer for not only creativity and stimulus, but also serves as a hub for introducing and spreading enthusiasm and ambition throughout the organization.

Of course, as individuals, we are in control of our experiences and progress. Our production is defined, among many things, by our ambition, motivation and overall satisfaction. The decisions we make when engaging in social networks are striking, not simply because they affect our efficiency, but because they test our determination. The live web is developing and while it is enticing, it is not beyond our means to manage.

Rewarding insight, initiative, and ingenuity sets a standard. However, without guidance, guidelines, or healthy governance, we reap the risks and penance warranted by our lack of understanding and leadership…and this is true for both sides of the discussion.

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160 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Twitter and Facebook: The New Tools of Productivity or Distraction”

  1. loucovey says:

    I think its more a generational issue. Upper management of corporations tends to be in in the hands of Boomers or Gen Xers. The latter generation got their hands on social tech in the latter part of their professional careers and have sort-of adopted it. I know some boomers, however, that still have issues with desktop computers. The Millennials, however, grew up with social tools. They look back with irony over pagers as ancient tech. They builkd their relationships through the tech as well as their professional network. Management men doesn't quite understand this sociological change and sees their employees “wasting time.” They could, after all, be reading print trade journals.

  2. loucovey says:

    I think its more a generational issue. Upper management of corporations tends to be in in the hands of Boomers or Gen Xers. The latter generation got their hands on social tech in the latter part of their professional careers and have sort-of adopted it. I know some boomers, however, that still have issues with desktop computers. The Millennials, however, grew up with social tools. They look back with irony over pagers as ancient tech. They builkd their relationships through the tech as well as their professional network. Management men doesn't quite understand this sociological change and sees their employees “wasting time.” They could, after all, be reading print trade journals.

  3. Mike Walsh says:

    Hey Brian – lots of great points, data and studies. I think that the reality is that it's not much different than surfing the web (pre-social networks). Some people are very effective at it, some are inefficient, while others use it primarily to play fantasy football, which is also OK and likely a timely distraction as some of the studies (I don't like studies) pointed out. The social networks have the added benefit of the water cooler effect. The traditional water cooler effect (as in when I worked at Raytheon as an engineer) could be used for telling jokes, talking about Tetris or talking about business and driving connections. To me, with the security risks aside, is very much the same. Nice post.
    cheers – mike

  4. Mark Drapeau says:

    No doubt if you break it down by *type* of company there would be some interesting patterns. At Microsoft, nothing seems to be blocked. But at Nestle there would be a different standard, and at Goldman Sachs still another. For good reason.

    It can make you “more productive” in some settings/situations with some goals/missions, and not others. Is the goal to have 100% of companies unblock social networks? I don't think so. Is 54% “too low”? Again, I don't think so. Maybe it's just right.

  5. David Hachez says:

    I would put it like this: as a matter of fact it doesn't diminish the productivity of one person but it questions the principle of 8 hours / day. An old concept. There is no such thing as a person 100% efficient during 8 hours. Look at the kids in the classroom: they can barely focus on the teacher for more than 20 minutes. Does it mean they are less smart? No. They organize their brain power in another way. So disruptive activities are becoming more and more natural. The fact of not taking pauses and not enjoying social relationships may cause the rise of zombies 😉

  6. Mike Wiles says:

    I think of behaviours that decrease productivity Social Networking is relatively low. I think that many people who smoke waste a lot of time/productivity getting their fix everyday. It's crazy to me when a corporation bans facebook (for example) from being used on their computers, people who want to engage with facebook will simply check it on their phone…in order to do this they may have to walk away from their computer which wastes even more time. Not to mention anyone in a creative field may find their idea quality improve with a little facebook time…ie an online execution could spark a great idea. Just my $0.02.

  7. Erik Boles says:

    There are some things we are missing here that need to be considered. There is no doubt that the internet has made it easier to be distracted at work, but consider this: I can be distracted at my desk, where I can see emails pop up, hear the phone ring or be available for a question from a co-worker. Even when I am technically on my break, I now spend it at my desk on facebook, ESPN, etc. Compare that to 15 years ago. I still had the same distractions, but it was reading the print copy of SNOWBOARDING Magazine in the bathroom (come on, you know you all do it) or in the breakroom where I don't know about the phone, emails, etc. The distraction factor hasn't changed, just the form it has taken.

    More importantly, businesses are always geared towards the immediate payoff, the monthly bookings, the transactional dollars. While their may be a slight dip in those monthly bookings short term, what has social networks done for the reach of the companies brand via it's employees? I am not ignorant enough to think that all, or half, or even 15% of interactions are about work — but some of them are. So while we may be seeing a decrease in short-term revenues, a study needs to look at how many loyal customers our employees are building through relationships, customers that traditionally may have been resistant to the carpet bomb marketing of the company I work for.

    Not saying that is the case, but we tend to look at dollars and percentages too closely and not the long-term payoff and Return on Time (ROT) vs. Return on Investment (ROI).

    Erik Boles
    http://ErikBoles.com
    http://twitter.com/ErikBoles

  8. Ken says:

    I think social media policies in business have to be handled just like they do for individuals – on a case by case basis. I think the conversation is too generalized in many ways. There are businesses where social media plays no role today. Should that change? Perhaps, but the business has a set of core competencies that drive the bottom line, and that's what shareholders care about.

    I do believe every business, public and private sector, needs to identify their social media strategy in support of their corporate mission. Then they need a roadmap to implement that strategy. Then they need policies to enable and support that roadmap. That's how corporate culture is shaped, and it doesn't happen overnight.

    To their own peril, many businesses will lead with policies and practices prior to developing a strategy and roadmap. They react in knee jerk fashion, banning tools or over-embracing them, without that substance a business should have beforehand. Due diligence in planning is too often a missing step, even in very large organizations.

  9. CoachDeb says:

    Tough question. I can never agree with banning anything – esp if it's something that gives an employee a much needed break during the day – and motivates them to get back to doing their job. I know for myself, my ADD keeps me hopping from one project to another – whether it was when I was an executive at a corporation, or now as an entrepreneur.

    I like how Google not only doesn't ban things, but Condones personal use activities on the net. In fact, they tell their employees to engage (no pun intended) on the net at least 25% of their work week – for Personal Use!

    Hmmm… imagine of companies understood the “Romeo Rule” and instead of banning something, forcing employees to try to hide their personal actvities, they instead allowed it and measured performance based on RESULTS instead of “ACTIVITY” …

    #ParadigmShift

  10. Tim Goleman says:

    Great post about if social media takes time away from work. I think one thing is missing though, and I”m sure it will be taken into account in the next study. The use of smart phones at work. With the penetration of smart phones in the market, workers can get to any social media site on their phone and not go through the network at their work. This is something employers can't monitor. But great post.

  11. pierrekhawand says:

    Brian, did you check out the Results Curve that I sent to you? It has the answers to many of these question. I will be publishing my study hopefully in late April, and will be in touch about that. Looking forward to discussing this further with you.

  12. Some interesting points raised in the article. But I would have to fall into the camp that says that it helps you realign focus, refresh, and then get back on track. Your mind needs a break every once-in-while and this, for some people, allows their mind to relax.

    I also see this as a morale and trust issue. In blocking sites you are telling your employees that we don't trust you. It lowers morale for your workforce and thereby lowering productivity. By keeping the sites unblocked you show your trust in your employees.

    If you have problems with employees who abuse the power, you deal with it on a one-on-one basis and through standards set for your employees.

  13. tonypinto says:

    Man, that's a great question. It's definitely a distraction some days. But it also feeds me business, keeps me current on family and friends (i.e., improves relationships), and also current events (haven't picked up a newspaper in years. And is just FUN.

    I'm also finding myself spending quite a bit of time in a nurturing a niche food social network I set up: http://www.NoTimeToCook.com. I can get sucked into that for days. Engaging members, looking for new content (cooking videos, recipes, etc.), adding bells and whistles… It never ends. But again, it's SO MUCH FUN!

  14. Shubhranshu says:

    This is contextual… in IT, Finance companies there is far greater security due to the nature of the work and need for safeguarding information… mobiles, pen drives etc are all banned from the work area and so is access to personal email etc…. social media is unlikely to go away, so we need a better risk-reward assessment as unlike print, this media is much more pervasive and organisations will have to arrive at their own balance.

  15. WebStudio13 says:

    We all need to have good time management skills in order to use social media tools productively. I wrote a blog post before called “30 Tips: The Productivity Guide of Social Media.” I think it matches the topics discussed here http://bit.ly/7r8Rb9

  16. The rub is social networks appeal to our humanity when technology appeals to our efficiency. As a society we are torn, on the work side we are being made to perform more like machines, calculating faster, connecting to information with greater efficiency and producing results.

    The social network beckons us to our humanity by interacting with others. These relationships take time which of course is not as efficient. Facebook, Plaxo et al profiles when completed by the individual allow us to “cut to the chase” of those perfunctory discovery points. One can make the case in that sense social media is an ideal blend of technological efficiency and humanity.

    I accept these conversations about productivity as a fact of life, but it surely takes away from the joy of experiencing living.

  17. I think the jury is still out on how social media affects productivity. Two thoughts came to my mind. First, social media is still a new concept to the masses so folks are spending a lot more time on it. Remember when the Internet was new? And all the surfing people did because it was such a novel concept. Same thing is happening with social media. There will be a dip in productivity, but it will increase again when the newness wears off. Second thought is it depends on the person. Some people use the Internet and social media as tools in gain insights and information. While other don't. Only time will tell.

  18. Harish says:

    A new Starbucks opened in my office building last month. Now I have a distraction. I go down to grab a coffee. Accompany others when they go down. Sometimes stay back and chat with them. Then I also conduct business there. Have conducted many interviews there. People passing through find it convenient to drop by and chat there, than in the confines of a meeting room. They find it easier less formal. Definitely spending more time with people now. Work or otherwise. Is it a distraction? Sometimes. Is it productive? Sometimes. The good thing is that unlike a phone or email, I decide how I use it.

  19. KINGRPG says:

    I like that you think. Thank you for share very much.

  20. WebDesignUK says:

    Excellent post. However, I wonder how long will those two still remain the “greatest” ones? I mean, others are coming from behind but do they have any tiny chance against these two?
    Interesting to watch further…

  21. I really like the topic. As per my thinking Social Networks are for getting refresh because if we work whole day and not use any social network like facebook and twitter so we get bored. But if someone is using every time so productivity will decrease ofcourse.

  22. Steve says:

    Hi Brian. As you point out, there have always been distractions in the workplace. Just answer a non-work-related phone call and hey, you're distracted. But I agree, distractions are necessary and expected in the daily work flow. We would all go nuts if our minds were entirely focussed on work tasks 100% of the working day. Banning Facebook is as pointless as banning private phone calls or chit-chat around the water cooler. Employees would simply tune out and find something else to distract them from work.

  23. Mike Ricard says:

    A very well balanced article Brian. Kudos. Funny, the whole argument appears to hinge around the word 'disruptive'. To traditionalists they take the word to mean causing interruptions or distracting employees from their work.
    Social tools are also disruptive in the sense of being 'disruptive technology'. Clayton M. Christensen described disruptive technology as an innovation that unexpectedly displaces an established technology. The old technology that social networking in the workplace is displacing is the hierarchical, process-centric business model. We are seeing businesses become flatter, more open and connected to their customers, with employees networking to achieve new ways of doing things, responding quicker to changes in the marketplace.
    Of course, companies are scared, it's changing the way everyone is doing business. But those who embrace social networking (with guidelines, or healthy governance as you rightly recommend), they will take a lead in the marketplace and still be around in 10 years time.

  24. kalynbaldwin says:

    Brian,

    As you mentioned the transition of technology (Water cooler to Facebook), it becomes a self explanatory analogy. If your employees were previously going to waste their time at the water cooler, they will now transfer their procrastination to their computer monitor where Facebook never leaves the list of tabs on their browser. So you then enter into the realm of the unknown. Can I deter my employees from being less productive by banning them from social media sites, or have I just hired lazy employees? This is each manager's predicament. But from a personal standpoint, I agree with many of the other individuals' comments. No one is productive for 8 hours a day. However, my occupational description requires that I have a vast knowledge of social media marketing, engage in social media networks daily both for our agency and clients, and manage, maintain and monitor all networks religiously. Therefore: I am on Facebook for 8 hours a day. If this were the same for our accounting department, we'd be in trouble. Conclusion? It's all relative.

  25. kellymonroe says:

    As an IT consultant I am fully aware that IT management is struggling with whether social media is productive or obstructive for companies and their employees. Software is being developed and policy and restrictions are being decided everyday by IT managers. The security of company networks are at stake but the potential for innovation using social media is a large enough carrot for the discussion of how to properly utilize the medium continues. Palo Alto networks came up with an webinar, http://bit.ly/cR80Al, that should be interesting exploring the issues surrounding social media in the workplace. It is important to not only understand the immediate benefits of doing business how one lives, but the threat it presents to a company's greater ROI and productivity when it comes to the server's safety and security.

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  27. Nick Smith says:

    The answer's a no-brainer to anyone working in IT or HR who sees the numbers – we used CryptaVault and WebSense to pinpoint the loafers, then encouraged self-policing once the hardened abusers (and we're talking five or six hours a day here) were dealt with.

    In my view, the bottom 10% of users (by numbers of page views) were using the web and social networking sites in a way that benefited the company, the rest were just loafing to a greater or lesser degree.

  28. Shared nice info graphic chart i like it.. Twitter will be increase more and more after facebook so far as my knowledge is concerned about it …

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