The Ontario government in May, 2007, banned civil servants from accessing Facebook at work. Premier Dalton McGuinty described his reasons for blocking it: “I just don't really see how it adds value to the work you do in the workplace” (Flavelle, 2007). Many bandwagon-riding companies apparently shared McGuinty’s assessment, and Facebook was quickly banned at many workplaces. If McGuinty and other employers do not value workplace morale, workflow efficiency, or workforce communication, then they might have a point. With guidance, however, Facebook can be an effective corporate tool. It fosters co-worker cohesion, opens up communication, and remedies bureaucracy.
Michael Geist, an Internet scholar at the University of Ottawa, agrees that companies have misunderstood Facebook:
The attempts to block Facebook or punish users for stating their opinions fails to appreciate that social network sites are simply the Internet generation’s equivalent of the town hall, the school cafeteria, or the workplace water cooler... The answer does not lie in banning Facebook or the other emerging social media sites, but rather in facing up to Facebook fears and learning to use these new tools to engage and educate. (Geist, 2007)
Facebook was banned in many workplaces due to perceptions that staff was spending too much time on it. Some employees will always find ways to abuse company time, but this does not render any technology useless; instead, it means that these employees should be disciplined. Critiques that Facebook would become a gossip mill could be countered by establishing clear guidelines for its use and content. A perceived lack of control inclines some companies to try to build their own social network or to suggest that their intranet suffices. However, aside from the substantial cost to build and maintain these types of platforms, compared to Facebook’s zero cost, these efforts are prone to wither, due to a notorious lack of support and no organic capacity for growth that Facebook has. New recruits, particularly younger ones, are already using this tool and expect prospective employers to allow it. These workers have experience creating and sustaining thriving Facebook communities and want to bring Facebook to work with them. With planning and supervision, Facebook can be put to work for most companies.
It is recognized by companies that co-workers’ social relationships are invaluable for business operations, but corporate events are often too poorly attended or too infrequent to be very effective. Some companies have already set up their own Facebook networks and groups, based on social, project, and team lines. Co-workers can then share personal and career details, get to know each other better, develop rapport, and build trust online. This social networking can also be extended to include clients, partners, and other work contacts. Facebook is available around the clock to help employees connect when, and where, they want.
Communicating at most offices is problematic. There is distrust of officially-sanctioned news and complaints that communications are only top down and one way. Communicating on Facebook is easy, as it enables personal and group blogs, sharing of links and information, group and individual messages, and discussions. Geographic barriers are also a communication barrier, as more companies have global, multi-site, or virtual offices. Facebook bridges both distance and hierarchy. It allows multi-channel and targeted communications in which any employee can participate. Established guidelines will inspire employees to be constructive, and if employees feel that they are connected and heard, they will remain positive contributors.
Bureaucracy or silo-mentality at many workplaces makes the daily process of getting work done difficult. Often co-workers do not know one another, and with a lack of trust, work does not move as smoothly as it could. In other cases, employees are not even aware that co-workers possess the experience or skills needed for specific projects. With a nourished workplace Facebook community, employees have the online opportunity to build knowledge and rapport that can than be taken offline to help operations hum.
Banning Facebook is counterproductive. By improving communication, developing relationships, and increasing cooperation, Facebook provides an existing, organic environment for companies to help achieve a more efficient and engaged workforce. Facebook could turn out to be the hardest-working employee of all.
Flavelle, D. (2007, May 04). Worries follow rise of Facebook. Retrieved November 29, 2007, from http://www.thestar.com/Business/article/210313.
Geist, M. (2007, May 07). Facing up to Facebook fears. Retrieved November 29, 2007, from http://www.michaelgeist.ca/content/view/1925/135/.