Let’s just ban email too

facebook peninsula ban
An article published by BBC News yesterday about the business costs of Facebook and other social networking platforms says more about the myopic, risk-averse mindsets of some lawyers conducting “studies” than it does about Facebook. Here’s an excerpt:

According to employment law firm Peninsula, 233 million hours are lost every month as a result of employees “wasting time” on social networking.

The study – based on a survey of 3,500 UK companies – concluded that businesses need to take firm action on the use of social networks at work.

Some firms have already banned employees from accessing Facebook.

Mike Huss, director of employment law at Peninsula called on all firms to block access to sites such as Facebook.

He asked: “Why should employers allow their workers to waste two hours a day on Facebook when they are being paid to do a job?”

He said that loss of productivity was proving a “major headache” for firms.

This is the all-too-typical reflexive response to a perceived problem: ban it or block access. Typically their analyses to justify such reactions inflate costs, and rarely include any benefits in their calculations.

I wanted to be fair about this criticism, so I tried to find out where this Peninsula law firm is, or who Mike Huss is. I wanted to get a copy of the study so I could look at the methodology.

Unfortunately, Mike and Peninsula are hard to find on the web. I Googled “Peninsula employment law firm” and his company didn’t show up on the first 10 pages of results. There were six matches for Mike Huss in LinkedIn, and there were something like 87 in Facebook. None of them were matches for the Mike Huss with Peninsula law firm. Maybe if they were engaged in social media they would be easier to locate. Ironically, a Facebook group just started that is called “Ban Peninsula Employment Law Firm“… (click the link to join it.)

I did eventually find the name of the company, called Peninsula Business Services, when I Googled “Mike Huss Peninsula” and read a few previous news articles. I requested a copy of the study from Peninsula’s PR office. If I receive it, I will share analysis here.

(There’s a related point I could make here about why BBC didn’t post a copy of the Peninsula study with its story so readers could judge its validity, but I’ll leave that for another post.)

Of course, like any technology, social media sites can be abused. But if the concern is “wasting” time at work and lost productivity, why would they stop at Facebook? Let’s look at some other major office time drains:

  • How about email? How much time does the average office worker spend on email each day? Should we ban that, too? After all, there’s lots of spam from Nigerian princes offering to share their wealth.
  • Or how about blocking news sites (like maybe BBC news?) People who are reading the news at the office aren’t getting their work done.
  • Maybe they should block Yahoo and AOL. After all, there are all sorts of games and other pointless diversions on those sites.
  • And the telephone, too. Far too much potential for chit-cha t instead of buckling down to work.

If productivity is an issue, companies should deal with the real problem, which is lack of employee engagement. Happy, satisfied, engaged employees exert discretionary effort, going above and beyond what’s required. They essentially “volunteer” to meet the needs of customers.

An arbitrary and unilateral blocking of Facebook or MySpace tells employees you don’t trust them. Because you don’t. And a social networking ban contributes to an atmosphere of distrust that turns your workforce into Hessians. That’s a major reason why General Washington defeated General Cornwallis: volunteers usually beat mercenaries.

Businesses depend on this volunteer effort from employees. Sometimes when unions want to make a point to management they tell their members to follow work rules to the letter, doing exactly what the union contract requires: no more, and no faster. The Peninsula-proposed policies seem likely to provoke this kind of workforce response.

Employers generally provide email access for employees (instead of barring it) and don’t block general access to the web because they see productivity gains from such access. Email consumes a lot of time, but it also is a highly efficient means of completing some work projects.

Networking sites like Facebook are just different means of electronic communication. To say that all firms should block access to them is extreme. As Facebook evolves (particularly by adding a professional associate category of friends), companies will better understand how it can contribute to business goals, and they will be less likely to heed these headline-grabbing studies.

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Author: Lee Aase

Married father of six and grandfather of seven, and the Chancellor of SMUG - Social Media University, Global. By day I'm the Director of the Mayo Clinic Social Media Network. Whatever I say here is my personal opinion, and doesn't reflect the positions of my employer.

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