Facebook: Friend or Foe?

As someone whose entire career would not exist without the World Wide Web, I think of the internet as a tool, a marketplace, a reference library. I once had to spend a week without a broadband connection while I was in the process of moving and I felt oddly disconnected and anxious, as if a vital part of my life was missing. To me, the internet is a way to connect, create and learn.

But to most employers outside the ecommerce industry, the internet is viewed as simply this:

A distraction

There is no doubt that the advent of computer-based work and having an entire world of entertainment available at our fingertips has contributed to increased worker distraction. But haven’t employees always found ways to goof off at the office? How much distraction is too much?

Brazen Careerist blogger, Matt Elliott, argues that as long as an employee is getting their work done, they should be allowed the freedom to do with their time as they wish.

It seems entirely acceptable for an employee to spend 10 minutes chatting with co-workers about the movie they saw on the weekend or 5 minutes on a personal phone call, but apparently just a glimpse at Facebook is an instant productivity killer. The message, I guess — and this is coming from those generally clueless about everything online — is that you can’t be working if you’re also on some website.

The real issue I have with this is one of trust. By constantly monitoring your employees’ screens, by installing filters and blocks, by blanket policies forbidding access at work, you’re essentially saying to your employees that you can’t trust them. “Why would you do this stupid work I’ve assigned you when you have fun internet things to look at?”

I can certainly agree that if an employee’s output is being impacted by constant web surfing (or personal phone calls, frequent absences, or general goofing off), then by all means, they should be disciplined for poor performance.

But what if the irresponsible actions of a handful of employees start to affect the work of others?

What if one employee’s constant Facebook viewing goes unchallenged and the other members of that person’s department have to pick up that person’s the slack or become resentful and therefore less productive? Or even more commonly, what if an employee’s YouTube addiction starts to drain serious bandwith from the entire company, impacting internal systems from functioning?

A comment on Matt’s post by a reader named Travis offers some startling statistics:

Being an Administrator that has recently put in place a content filter to “Block” employees from going to certain sites, I completely agree…that people need to save it for after work. It’s called work for a reason, and allowing Facebook and Myspace are not conducive to a working environment. I personally have watched the productively levels increase here – we did a test as to how many “hits” sites like Myspace and Facebook were getting prior to blocking the sites, and I can say that in the 3 months of testing certain employees were on those sites 28% of their day, now that they are blocked we get about 15% of that back in productivity (the other 13% now goes to other sites that we don’t feel we should block)

28% is over a quarter, or 2 hours of every workday. That is some serious time and bandwith being wasted. Doesn’t everyone have to sign computer-usages policies as part of the standard new hire paperwork? Most people seem to ignore the points about excessive personal internet usage and the prohibitions about streaming media and downloads. Some people don’t even read the policy before signing it. How does that demonstrate personal accountability, even among those who only “occasionally” check their personal email at the office?

Where should businesses draw the line? Should they honor an employee’s personal freedom to do what they wish and deal with troublemakers on an individual basis? Or should they aim for the lowest common denominator and ban all non-work-related sites (such as MySpace, Facebook or YouTube) from office computers?

What do you think?

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15 responses »

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  2. Considering I’m reading this at work right now…I guess blocking sites is a useful method of increasing productivity. However, I currently hate the job I have and I’m not invested in doing a good job. When I care about promotion and/or the work, I never spend much time looking at personal websites.

    However, that being said, I never check Facebook at any workplace.

  3. Does this not explain why companies should take the time and advise/train or motivate employees to find useful ways in deploying this technology? Social Networking – Socializing, where’s the business value in that?

    Yet you’ll encourage these same individual’s to email their contacts through a CRM, sending separate msg’s to each and potentially dealing with bounced returns. Where if these same contacts were already contented through a source that allows them the freedom to view/receive/respond without trying up a server.

    YouTube or any video sharing site does need some guidlines. An engineering firm waking up and finding tools and CAD drawnings may try and rebuild their catalog over night.

    The challenge lies with both the company and individual(s) to find effect ways to tap new potential markets.

  4. Well, Jerry, as one of Officer NewB’s co-workers, I have to disagree. We all love coming to work with her. Her thoughtful, critical thinking is an asset to our company and, I believe, her blog. It’s a sign of maturity and intelligence to constantly question things in an effort to improve yourself, your workplace and your world. I learn from Office NewB, even though I’m older.

    Also, if you want people to take your comments and your criticism seriously, perhaps you should employ some self-critique: I think you meant holier than thou, not “holier then though.” Perhaps you could learn something from Office NewB, too.

    About the question of internet usage at work (disclaimer: I’m writing this on my lunch break!), I think it is unrealistic to expect that workers in this age of technology and information will not ever use the internet for personal use. I think that if they’re still able to manage their workload and excel at what they do, it’s a moot issue. Work is a place for work, but work-life balance is what keeps employees happy. I’d rather keep employees happy by allowing them the freedom to use the internet judiciously than forbid it. That said, I think streaming video and audio at work that deplete company bandwidth are a blatant misuse of company resources. That’s where I draw the line.

  5. It’s tough to make a blanket decision.

    If I were a manager, I would seriously look into the reasons why my workers spent so much time online. Did anyone ask them? I think that Office Newb is a force, for good, btw.

    I’m just saying that it seems like managers have all these ideas on why their workers do things, but they never ask the people involved.

    If I were a manager, I’d hate to pay for two hours so someone could screw around with myspace everyday. First of all, what can you even _do_ on myspace other than view people’s shitty pre-millenial webpages?

    The main thing I’d ask is, “how productive is this worker?”

    Some people are highly efficient, and they feel entitled to look at personal stuff because they do their work in two hours when someone else takes all day to do it.

    If they are that efficient and they are doing in 6 hours what it takes others to do in 8, why bother with the other two hours. The next employee could take 2 days to do what Ms. myspace did in 6.

    This is getting confusing, which is because each employee is different. A good manager allows for these difference without making anyone feel like they are getting shafted. This is why managers are people and not computers with little perfect programs.

    I’d also ask the person if there was something they’d rather be doing. If I could get them to do something more difficult, perhaps they will leave childish things like myspace alone. Perhaps not. I don’t know.

    I can tell you this. If someone is used to a two hour break everyday, banning myspace will not stop this. They will waste time in other ways. They will get on their cell phone and if this is banned, they’ll talk to co-workers, which is worse because now two people’s time is wasted each time one worker tries to slack. If that’s banned, they’ll do something else. There’s always more ways to slack.

    So personal web use isn’t the problem at all. It is unmotivated workers.

    Personally, I don’t think anything should be banned. If people are too stupid to know what is unacceptable such as porn at work to give an obvious example, I say can them. If you take away people’s favorite sites, they might even retaliate against you somehow. At best, you create an Us vs. Them mentality.

    Where I work now, my bosses trust me. I always deliver the goods on time. If they banned all web sites, I’d be OK because I realize that I’m not here to comment on blogs. But I’d prefer if they talked to me in person. I think most people like that best.

  6. Consider this…today’s employees work longer than the standard 8 hour days. Since we are connected all the time, it’s easier to check e-mail at work. This is justifiable in many ‘net workers minds because most of us are checking our work at home…at night, on weekends, and on vacation.

  7. I have to agree with Leroy – taking away privileges creates an “Us vs. Them” attitude.

    I rarely surf the Internet at work because I feel guilty, but I think employees should be given a certain amount of basic trust and respect. If their productivity goes down, remove the privilege and talk to them about it.

    That’s my two cents anyway.

  8. What about companies that allow their employees to create internal Facebook pages? To me, I really don’t care what you do so long as you get your work done. I think it’s funny that many companies ban sites like Facebook and then create an alternative Web 2.0 solution on their intranet site. What if I’m spending 2 hours a day on the companies internal version of Facebook? Is this still wasting time? By the way, I think Facebook is fairly lame.

  9. I am from the non-profit sector, only speaking for me only. We are thinking of working at home and as long as you get the work done and utilize the Facebook (part of work)in a way that is not interfering your work, that is fine. Your work performance will show and we are not silly when it comes to seeing who does the producing.

  10. Bottom line:

    I own a business and I trust Gen Y employees about as much as Dick Cheney.

    Give them an inch and they will take a mile. The sense of entitlement they posess is overbearing.

    I do not give them access to the internet, allow them to use their cell phones, or let them listen to iPods. If you don’t implement these restrictions, they don’t work…..period.

    It is “Us versus Them”…..grow up Gen Y!!!

  11. I love how the admin in this story came up with the figure that 28% of the workday was spent on social networking sites. This guy might get the award for dumbest admin in the history of corporate computing (which is quite an achievement let me tell you.) So because the site was open Einstein the admin thought that said worker was spending that time reading and messaging on the site, by that logic I am the most productive employee in history! My corporate email and CRM are left open all day, meaning 200% of my workday is devoted to work, even the time I’m spending writing on this blog! If Office Newb has this guy’s contact info, I’d love to recommend him highly for an opening within our firm, I’d probably get a raise almost right away! So far this blog is two for two with poorly reasoned arguements, going back to that backward post about ROWE.

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  14. For a different view, check out Banning Facebook by Toby Ward.

    I also posted on social networks and intranets to show the scope of social network sites and impact on people (employees are also people) all over the world. This has serious ramifications on work policies and people management.

    Bottom line, treat people like kids, they’ll be kids. Treat them like adults, they usually end up behaving like adults. Set the expectations right and focus on the quality of outputs/outcomes from the team. And if that doesn’t do the trick, remember this – TIME : PRODUCTIVITY does not equal to 1:1.


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