The Debate Over Social Media at the Office

Candid talk from both sides about using cell phones and social media in the office
5 min read

This story appears in the March 2010 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Yes, I Blog at the Office

And why not text and tweet, too? An employee at a California high-tech startup says he's entitled.

iPhone? Check. Calls? Sure. Text messages? Yes. IM? Of course. Blogging? Tryin'. Facebook. Certainly. Twitter? Some.

Why wouldn't I do all these things at my job? I work at a high-tech startup and you've got to keep up with the rest of the world even if you are, as I am, a soccer dad with two kids, a busy wife and a hectic life.

I'm 46, the second-oldest person in my company. I know my twentysomething colleagues do even more stuff online and with tech toys than I do. So if I need to, of course I handle personal stuff at work. I surf for news on the web. I check in on friends and family on Facebook. I read tweets. I've even posted to my personal blog, which is about politics and midlife concerns. And, yeah, while I've got the kids trained not to call or text me or their mom at the office, I've arranged a lot of stuff by phone, text or chat for their soccer leagues. It can get crazy during the soccer season.

We're a small company, so we all work together, mostly in one open space. We didn't get around to buying a fancy office phone system and getting one now makes no sense. We all want to carry just one cell--the hottest model, of course--so we all use our own phones for both company and personal business. We communicate with each other by texting, IM, Skype calls and chat, Facebook--you name it. We do this rather than getting up to talk to each other sometimes.

Our shop, as a result, can be a quiet place, though if you walk around, you see people have many different windows popped up onscreen for all those applications. And their smartphones are humming, and that next text might be about a date. But it could also be about a customer or a product.

In our office, people Twitter just to get random thoughts off their minds. But our firm also taps social media to get its message out to the public. So when I'm standing behind someone and I can see his computer screen, I really can't tell if that Facebook page is his own or the company's.

Have we had problems with anyone slacking off, using technology for personal business or breaching security somehow? Not that I know of--and I would, since I'm also our company's
HR guy. --As told to Craig Matsuda

A Midwestern credit union has pulled the plug on Facebook and Twitter and is on the verge of banning cell phones, too. A company VP explains why.

Like most officers in this company, when I started out, there was just one telephone in your department. It sat on a supervisor's desk. If you had an emergency, you took that call on the boss's phone. Now, as I stroll our operations, everyone has a phone on their desk or nearby.

So why does everyone also need a personal cell phone at work? Why shouldn't we ban them on the job?

We're seriously considering it. We just barred access on our computers to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. We don't give smartphones and PDAs access to our network, either. But people can use their cell phones to get on social media sites on the job--and to me, that makes cell phones a workplace issue.

We've already got some rules and we talk a lot about common sense practices with cell phones and other personal electronic devices. We want to trust our people to do the right thing; we're not cracking down on moms with sick kids.

But that approach isn't working.

We let tellers know they're dealing with the public and it's rude for them to be on cell phones. We still get complaints.

We tell managers and staff to turn off devices when they're in meetings. They still interrupt.

We run big service centers where our people must handle high-volume customer contacts in an exacting way and they can't take personal calls on duty. We know from monitoring and direct observation that, in fact, they do.

Yes, productivity is a concern. Yes, supervisors are weary of squabbles over intrusive cell-phone chatter. But here's what's most critical for us: We handle something dear to our customers--their money. We can't make mistakes. We've got laws to obey. We need our folks' undivided attention.

Not long ago, I got a reminder of the low-tech security woes these devices create. I returned an upset customer's call, which she took on her cell. She asked me to hold on as she put her cell on her desk and finished a conversation on her work line. As a result, I overheard an earful of confidential information as she spouted off the names of clients, their addresses, sums they owed and products delivered by her firm. Employees are just too casual with cell phones.

We're not stuck in the past. The company actually gives devices to those who need them. Still, the only way we can let people know we're serious, and really discipline hard-core offenders, is by instituting a uniform policy banning cell phones. --As told to Craig Matsuda

Boon or Bane?

Smartphones, personal digital assistants, texting, blogs, social media. They're all part of the workplace now, and how companies deal with them is a direct reflection of their corporate culture. Some encourage employees to hop on Twitter and Facebook, to help build their brand online and take advantage of viral marketing. But there are more businesses concerned with lost productivity, security risks and distracted workers on the job, and they are inclined to cutting off access to social media or banning the use of personal technology in the office entirely.

In interviews with more than 1,400 chief information officers, Robert Half Technology, an IT staffing firm, found that 54 percent banned employee access to social media sites. Some workers jump on the sites only at work, the research firm Nucleus IT found, and spend as much as two hours a day on them.

"It's interesting to track how companies, on the one hand, want their people to be connected to and part of the latest technology trends, but, on the other hand, they want to limit or control what happens then," says Chris Boudreaux, an author and blogger who maintains, which has compiled more than 100 corporate policies on social media.

For example, at American Honda Motor Co., the U.S. arm of the Japanese auto manufacturer, employees must make a "business case" for access to social media and certain popular websites, including Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube. "We trust our folks but we're also transparent with them," says Marcos Frommer, a company spokesman. "You need to tell us why you need access to those sites for business purposes."

Kaiser Permanente, the healthcare provider, has a similar policy--employees may use social media for work purposes but only if following detailed rules, such as maintaining patients' privacy rights, being respectful and abiding by copyright law.

On the other hand, Inc. ascended to net lore when Amazon paid $1 billion to buy the shoe e-tailer, partly for the online outreach expertise of its employees. Razorfish, a digital ad agency, encourages its employees to be at the social media fore. And IBM has set up well-received employee blogs, with a disclaimer on its website that the opinions expressed aren't necessarily those of the firm.

Highly regulated businesses, such as financial services, have imposed some of the toughest rules banning cells, PDAs, texting, IM-ing and blogging, says Gary McGraw, chief technology officer of Cigital, an international software and security consulting company.

"Most people haven't caught up with the reality that personal electronic devices really have become small but very powerful, mobile computers," McGraw says. "And that has big implications for what's going to go on in the workplace." --C.M.


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