Social media: benefits and dangers
This is the fourth in a series of articles produced for the Future of Work Hub by Lewis Silkin LLP looking at the benefits and dangers of social media.
The ways in which we connect, communicate and share information and opinions have radically changed, with technology and globalisation driving wider and wider networks and connections. There are now over 3 billion active social media users worldwide across a range of networks. The variety and pervasive uptake of social media platforms and digital networks are driving societal and cultural shifts – an upheaval from which the world of work has not been immune. Social media is increasingly being used as a business tool, bringing with it fresh opportunities for employers but new risks as well.
Millennials, who have grown up with social media, are entering the workforce in greater numbers with an expectation of information sharing, communication and collaboration. This is a significant driver for businesses to engage effectively with social business and networking tools. As mentioned in our previous article, forward thinking organisations that are moving away from traditional, hierarchical management systems and embracing more agile, collaborative and flatter organisational models are using digital and social media platforms to support this strategy.
“Social first” business strategies – focusing on the ability for customers to interact with all levels of an organisation’s staff - are increasingly common and no doubt will continue to grow in light of changing customer demands. In these business models, staff are strongly encouraged - even required - to have a large and active social media presence, helping to transform the corporation from a faceless monolith into a collection of knowledgeable and engaging human beings.
A McKinsey survey of 20,000 consumers in Europe found that social media recommendations were behind more than a quarter of all purchases made. For many organisations, employees are their greatest asset and harnessing their digital power and connections can create unprecedented opportunities. Inviting employees to share brand messages on their own social media accounts brings a range of benefits for organisations when done correctly. Reportedly, content shared by employees attracts eight times more engagement than content shared by an organisation’s traditional brand channels. An employer with a clear organisational vision and a culture that encourages widespread collaboration and communication of its values is more likely to harness the support of its workforce and reap the benefits of a social media strategy.
However, with every member of staff acting as spokesperson, there is always the potential for things to turn sour. The method of communication on social media is easy, direct and usually informal, but small actions are capable of having big impacts. In a business environment, how can you harness individuality and encourage sharing of views and opinions, while preventing it from getting out of control and damaging your brand? Even if employees are not asked to use social media for work purposes, many will access their personal accounts outside work. There are multiple platforms from which employees can – and do – share their views about their work, their colleagues, their manager and their employer’s products and services. For some, complaining on social media is now as normal as moaning about your employer down the pub - but a lot more public!
Over recent years, the courts have seen several cases about dismissal for misconduct arising from social media use, both inside and outside of work. As yet, however, there is little judicial guidance for employers on how to deal with this developing area of risk. Employers should think carefully about appropriate rules and guidance for social media use and keep these under review as technology evolves.
Many social media accounts are public, giving organisations the opportunity to access an unprecedented level of private information about individuals (for example, in the context of recruitment or disciplinary proceedings). Managers and employees should be given training to ensure this type of activity does not impinge on an individual’s right to privacy or breach data protection laws. Conversely, many job candidates will be well aware of a company via its online presence before even applying for a job. An effective social media strategy is clearly an important means of communicating the organisation’s brand in recruitment campaigns.
For employers needing to protect their confidential information, business connections and goodwill, the current environment of internet-based communication makes this significantly more challenging. Where social media forms a key part of the job, the distinction between personal and professional personas is becoming increasingly blurred. Who owns the social media accounts? Should a departing employee be required to close their account? Can employees exploit contacts made on social media in the course of employment after they have left? Employees can communicate the fact of their departure and the identity of their new employer to a large number of connections by merely updating their LinkedIn profile. These types of issues concerning ownership of social media accounts and protecting the business have been the subject of litigation in only a small number of cases, but it is a trend which is likely to continue. Employers would be wise to consider these matters in advance and identify in contracts and policies who owns what and what should happen when someone leaves the organisation.
Use of “enterprise” social networks among colleagues at work can have many advantages beyond helping employers communicate more effectively with their staff and facilitating collaboration. It can also disrupt formal hierarchies and knowledge silos, promote employee engagement and productivity and remove organisational barriers, thereby improving relationships across geographical locations. Embracing the benefits of this type of social media technology will enable organisations to behave more nimbly in the face of an increasingly fast-moving and competitive business environment.
But social media use will also bring new problems to the workplace. Scientific studies have shown it to be addictive, reducing an individual’s ability to concentrate on a single task. With people constantly seeking external stimulation, it can be increasingly difficult to sustain the concentration needed for difficult tasks. Will “social-media-free” times or places at work become more common? How can personal social media use at work be managed most effectively in practice?
We can expect the sophistication of social media tools to continue to evolve at speed. With future technological developments, new jobs will be created and people will increasingly be able to create value through social collaboration, without the need for a traditional business enterprise. Widespread adoption of social media has the potential to radically rebalance the power and control between work givers and providers, presenting significant challenges for organisations in attracting and retaining talent in the future.
Watch out for the next article in the series will look at religious diversity. To read the introduction to the report which gives an overview of the impact of three megatrends - globalisation, technology and changing demographics - on the world of work, see the introduction to the series.
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