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Summary:

Last week, there was quite a bit of discussion about how some social media web sites, including Twitter, were being blocked for at least some White House staff members. The end result was that people were simply finding ways around the policies by accessing Twitter through […]

No Twitter AllowedLast week, there was quite a bit of discussion about how some social media web sites, including Twitter, were being blocked for at least some White House staff members. The end result was that people were simply finding ways around the policies by accessing Twitter through third-party clients or using their phones and other personal devices. I’ve been running across more and more companies and organizations that have strict policies about using social media or are even blocking access to various social web sites through the corporate network.

On the surface, it can seem like a good way to cut down on goofing off, but the reality is that many people use these sites to get information and, increasingly, to communicate with customers. While this can be a problem for some employees, it can cause a devastating productivity issue for those of us who do most of our work online.

I worked for a company a couple of years ago that blocked IM. We could use IM within the company to communicate with other employees, but it was blocked for any IM outside of the firewall. I like using IM for getting quick answers and checking in with people. While this may not sound like much, it was a big inconvenience for me because I worked with many consultants, contractors and customers who were not employees of the company. It didn’t take me long to find a way to bypass the corporate policy by using a new and nearly unknown web-based IM client. For me, the goal was to get more done as efficiently as possible, despite the obstacles.

When spending time working remotely and telecommuting, these social tools can be a great way to keep up with co-workers and colleagues. I often use Twitter to get answers to tough problems or find information that I need to do my job, since I can’t just drop into the office of another employee who might have the answer. Blocking social web sites only makes it more difficult for many employees to get their work completed efficiently. Let’s face it, those employees who are spending four hours a day goofing off on Facebook will find another way to spend their time goofing off, and the real solution is to deal with the problem employees, not to use broad policies to deal with a few isolated performance issues. Many employees will simply see this as a challenge to be overcome by finding interesting technical solutions to circumvent the technology used to block the web sites.

How have similar company policies impacted your productivity on the job, and did you find ways to get around those policies?

  1. I love this topic! There was a study recently where researchers showed that blocking actually inhibits productivity. It makes sense– brain-heavy work requires frequent breaks. Think back to school and recall how good you were at learning after 3hrs of info-laden classes. (Article: http://bit.ly/AXWze)

    We’re firm believers that there are better ways to help employees be productive. These include showing them how they spend their time compared to their average peer and social “nudges”– sending an employee an alert like, “You’ve spent 5h on Social Networking this week. Your average peer has spent 1h 21m” is generally pretty darn effective.

    (disclosure: I am CEO of RescueTime and we’re very definitely attacking the “blocking stuff in the workplace is stupid” problem! :-) )

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  2. I get as annoyed as anyone by ill-conceived and poorly implemented corporate IT policies like blocking Twitter, Facebook, and various IM services.

    However, the reason behind such policies is almost never to prevent people from goofing off. Employees’ use of 3rd-party communications services can (and often does) present a serious security risk.

    Pretty much every day I watch as various coworkers share company-confidential information across IM services. None of this stuff is info that these people shouldn’t be discussing with another–the problem is that they’re doing it over MSN, AIM, GTalk, etc. Corporate IT and information security teams have every reason to be worried about this sort of behavior.

    I agree that blanket cut-offs of such services is generally not the best solution. However, this sort of reaction is understandable given the risks involved–just ask Twitter how happy they are now with their decision to use Google Docs for all their internal communication.

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  3. I don’t buy the whole argument about protecting corporate secrets as a reason to block these services. I’ve overheard countless sensitive conversations naming specific companies/people/accounts on trains and buses and in cafes over lunch. Not to mention the reams of paperwork & digital files people take home and keep as ‘research’ for the next position they take in the industry. I’ve seen a whole sales training session lifted from one company and presented as one’s own work at another! It happens all the time, and it’s been going on long before any of these new fangled gadgets and services.

    It’s true that social tools facilitate a more rapid and wider dissemination of this information – however, the deeper rooted issue lies with people, culture and issues of loyalty.

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  4. @Pete — I agree with Brad. less-easy access to IM is not going to stop data leaks. Although that might be the reason given for implementing the policy, I bet a lot of the time the real reason is to try to stop people goofing off. Laptops and USB keys pose a much greater threat to data security, imo.

    Obviously if an employee is broadcasting company secrets over Twitter, you have a problem, but that problem is wit the person, not the service.

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  5. Security can be cited as a reason, but I agree that many leaks will still occur the old-fashioned ways – public conversations, stolen or mishandled files, overheard phone calls, etc. Smart phones and text messaging are another source of leaks.
    I think that blocking those sites is counterproductive, but from a naive HR policy point of view, blocking them does prevent goofing off. For larger companies, public relations is another concern. There are numerous examples in the news of employees writing questionable statements about their employer on Facebook or Twitter. Controlling access to those sites during work hours may be an attempt to control that.
    Overall, I say let people visit those sites. Tracking that behavior is not a problem, and like any other personnel issue, ultimately needs to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis when necessary.

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  6. The percentage of the time workers spend on social networking sites that has anything to do with their jobs is minuscule (zero for most people).

    If you don’t work for yourself, it is outright shirking on the company dime. Why not call it what it is?

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  7. @Mark

    Then it comes down to the debate, what are we/you/whoever being paid for? Time or results, and that’s a whole other debate.

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  8. Time spent on social networking sites is almost guaranteed to be personal, not work, unless your job is a new media rep.
    But, expecting employees to work continuously, solely focused on job tasks and with no thought towards personal items, is unrealistic. Productivity is enhanced by occasional breaks to rest your mind and recuperate for another run at work. Given that many employers practically demand work beyond a normal full-time schedule, making allowances for a reasonable amount of personal social networking is only fair.
    That’s why these issues need to be handled on a case-by-case basis. When a specific employee is abusing these privileges, that employee needs to be dealt with. A strict global policy will only come across as oppressive and could generate more negative backlash than positive productivity results.

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  9. @Adam
    Exactly. If an employee produces the desired results, and that’s what they are paid for, who cares about how their time was spent?

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  10. it’s just that they want to remove disturbances.. its true that these “disturbances” produce many posts on web that are latter useful for work

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