Why Facebook is helping you chat at work (and why your boss should encourage it)

Social networks can break down the barriers between employees. Jesus Sanz via shutterstock

Across the world, workers in many firms have started using social networks to transform their internal communications. Now, tapping into this, Facebook has created Facebook at Work. Much like the original Facebook, which was open only to university students, this new version will allow businesses to create their own social networks among employees.

This isn’t the first of its kind, but it could lead to a wider uptake of social networks within companies. Central to existing platforms such as Yammer and Slack is that they have the hallmarks of what made Facebook successful as a social networking site – the ability to connect with colleagues and develop a network, to share information that encourages debate, and to collaborate with colleagues in special-interest, project or private groups. They are particularly attractive to younger members of the workforce who are wedded to social networking sites when it comes to their lives outside of work.

This can encourage the kind of personal interactions that are natural to those who use social media, leading to a sense of connectedness between colleagues that spans geographical locations and time-zones. Some evidence suggests that, in this way, the associations between employee and employer are enhanced.

Risks and benefits

Enterprise social networks have the ability to offer an informal layer to formal communication. Personal requests for information or experience from colleagues through a social network can be particularly useful in encouraging the sharing of knowledge.

The informal nature of the communication in these networks can encourage discussion that would be discouraged in email. Direct connection between colleagues – irrespective of their hierarchical position – means that workers feel empowered to safely raise questions directly with a CEO. This can compress communication channels and help decision making.

However, there are clearly some risks. Not all CEOs welcome being challenged and others may not be happy to be questioned publicly. The ability to hide behind a keyboard can encourage people to say things they wouldn’t repeat in real life – this could potentially be career-threatening when visible to the entire firm.

No longer counts as slacking. Twin Design via Shutterstock

A paradox exists in the ability of these social networks to build connections between colleagues. They can create an environment where those who are already good networkers get more value than those who tread a lonelier path – thereby isolating them further. The fact that these networks don’t often have a central control of management, which can lead to problems spiralling out of control.

Balancing the potential and pitfalls

The willingness of business leaders to make a range of changes to cultural and business processes significantly affects their ability to exploit the benefits of an internal social network. Engaging with the network and setting the tone of how it is used are crucial.

Senior people should be visibly engaged. This is much more than uploading a quarterly update video or stage-managing a Q&A. It’s about real engagement that means executives learn what’s going on through direct interaction with staff – not silently monitoring discussion threads. An enterprise social network is a valuable source of information so companies should contribute to it and make it more so. Tacit endorsement also shows staff that it’s an acceptable use of time, not a bit of illicit social loafing.

Businesses should also encourage direct, informal discussion. This can lead to more effective decision-making and better engagement. The risk of some individuals taking this too far is small, and can be managed through the development of social norms that dictate acceptable behaviour. In common with public forums and communities, once the groundrules are clear they tend to be self-policing.

Networks should also be allowed to grow organically, with employees given freedom to take it in different directions. This will lead to a natural development of new ideas, strategies, processes and even products. While a corporate social network is certainly not a prerequisite to this, a culture of openness is synonymous with its social nature and is certainly facilitated by this type of technology.

The social revolution clearly hasn’t stopped at the organisation’s boundaries and some CEOs have used it as a catalyst for transformational cultural changes within their companies. Case studies that feature Burberry, IBM and Deloitte show how organisations have successfully implemented these changes and as we become increasingly wedded to technology and social networks, other companies would do well to take note.