Workplace social media apps might make our work life easier, but similar programs can have detrimental effects on our personal lives. So, should we really be using them at work?
Organisations work hard to create connections and collaboration between their employees. Firms are increasingly embracing social media platforms to encourage this with tools such as Yammer’ and ‘Workplace’ becoming ubiquitous. But as there’s an increasing body of research showing the negative effects of social media usage in our personal lives, it might be time to consider whether using these tools at work is similarly damaging?
Social media is a fact of life in most workplaces. Thirty-thousand companies around the world use Workplace by Facebook in the hope it will “promote openness, feedback and diversity to engage employees and drive cultural change”.
Subscribers to Yammer, Microsoft’s rival platform, are harder to spot as the platform is integrated into Office 365, but a 2012 McKinsey Global Institute study found that 72 per cent of companies were using some form of internal social media to promote communication and collaboration.
The plus side
There are plenty of advocates who point to the benefits social media has brought to our workplaces. In the Harvard Business Review, researchers found that employees who used such platforms were 31 per cent more likely to find colleagues with relevant expertise to complete a task, as well as using the platforms to “make faster decisions, develop more innovative ideas for products and services, and become more engaged in their work and their companies”.
Impressed? It gets better: the McKinsey study, which looked at just four industry sectors, argued that maximising the use of social media technologies at work could unlock $1 trillion in value annually.
The benefits are not just clear, they are substantial, inarguable even. Workplace social media platforms are designed on the same principles as their non-work counterparts. Engaging and user-friendly, they provide a constant stream of news, video clips and updates from colleagues across the organisation. Posts can be liked and shared just as they can outside of work.
The dark side
While the above research argues the productivity benefits of social platforms in the workplace, there is an increasing amount of evidence that these exact same features can be very damaging to users in their personal lives.
A 2014 study from the University of Toledo demonstrated the impact Facebook can have, finding an inverse correlation between time spent on the platform and self-esteem; the longer you spend on Facebook, the less likely you are to feel good about yourself.
This is in part because we compare our lives and experiences to those we see online; photos of a friend on holiday can reinforce the fact that we are on the sofa at home, and eating our reheated pasta in front of an Instagram feed of Ottolenghi delights has the same effect.
This in turn is proven to lead to feelings of envy and social isolation, which can be hugely damaging both mentally and physically. And then there’s the productivity issue: social media is addictive – it’s designed that way – and users can easily spend hours on the platforms, feeling genuine symptoms of withdrawal when they eventually log off.
Those cravings can also be accompanied by a fear of missing out, physical fatigue and depression. These are hardly feelings you want to cultivate in your employees.
To cap it all off, a 2018 study demonstrated that the reverse is true; reducing participants’ exposure to social media to ten minutes a day led to a decrease in loneliness and depression.
So, if there is such a large body of research demonstrating the negative impacts of social media, surely it’s time to consider all of these findings in a workplace context?
It’s not hard to imagine employees spending too much time on social media at work just as they do at home, particularly when many companies encourage the creation of online social groups alongside work-related content.
Anxiety can quickly be generated by looking to see whether or not your boss has “liked” your latest post, or when you notice that peers in your team have more followers or connections than you do.
Work platforms are often used to share positive news about promotions, team achievements or company successes. Managers might, post something to provide updates, or to create a sense of shared success and community. But if you’ve missed out on a role you applied for, or feel that your pay rise doesn’t reflect the wider performance of the firm, then this sort of celebration could easily feel smug and self-congratulatory.
Perhaps your colleague has posted a selfie from their trip to the New York office that you see while you’re sitting on the bus on your way to work. Are you going to ‘like’ that? The main social media platforms had a long honeymoon period before academics seriously studied the potential downside of this new phenomenon that was sweeping the world, and it’s only in recent years that this has been comprehensively analysed.
So now it’s time to cast an analytical eye onto workplace social media. Much of the writing to date has focused on the potential upside and benefits it brings – like that trillion-dollar McKinsey bounty – and we are still arguably in that same honeymoon phase.
But if we know beyond doubt that social media can be damaging and dangerous to users in their personal lives then surely it’s time to think twice about how far we should encourage its use in our workplaces?
To go one step further, if a manager insisted their employees perform activities that were proven to have negative physical and mental side-effects then they would be negligent at best, and at worst, culpable. Social media does exactly that, so we should reconsider how we use it at work.
How does your workplace utilise social media? And does it work? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.
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