Keeping in touch with people over various online social services can sometimes seem like goofing off, but those connections can turn out to be tremendously valuable. For those of us who are old enough to remember the days before we were always connected and sharing updates over Twitter, we remember a time when you rarely stayed in touch with people that you met casually. You would meet someone at a conference or other event, exchange paper business cards and would most likely never talk to that person again. Now, I can spend an evening hanging out with someone at a conference and keep in touch casually over Twitter, Facebook or even IRC so that the next time I run into them at some event, we can pick up right where we left off. As a result, I have more meaningful interactions with people than I ever would have been able to maintain in the old days.
Recently, a recruiter asked me how I found great people to recommend for jobs, and I told him that it was because they were all people I had met somewhere that I had kept in touch with online. When the right opportunity came up, I had people that I could reach out to that I knew were likely to be a good fit because of my past experience with them in some other context. Because there are so many ways to keep in touch with people, I can maintain connections with them for longer periods of time and know how their lives and careers have evolved since the last time I saw them in person. The end result of these maintained connections is that my company can use me as a resource to help find great talent.
Gathering information also becomes much easier with these social connections. I remember doing market research before we had so much data in online databases, and to get information I went to libraries to find the data I needed. Now, I can get most basic information with a simple search query in a browser, but for certain types of information, the social networks are the best resource available. I often reach out to my Twitter followers for answers to questions such as, “what is your favorite tool to analyze x?” or “I need a device that does y, what should I get?” Sometimes I just need to talk to someone who works at a particular company, so I often use LinkedIn to find friends who work at that company or who know someone who does. Without an online network like LinkedIn, it would have been harder to find the right person to contact for information.
I can rely on my network of contacts because I’ve spent some time over the years building and maintaining the right kinds of social connections with people. But this is where things get a little tricky: you need to spend time building those connections now to get the benefits later, and you don’t get the benefits without giving as much as you take. This means that you need to spend time answering questions and pointing people in the right direction when they ask something from you. You don’t want to be “that friend” who only comes around when she needs something. The way you build these relationships over time is by being there for people when they need you now; hopefully, someone will be there in the future when you need help. Like all relationships, it involves a balance between give and take.
This doesn’t mean that businesses should let their employees spend all day on Twitter, but it does mean that everyone needs to build time into their work for relationship building. As a community manager, keeping in touch with people is part of my job, so I spend some time using social tools, like IRC and Twitter, to keep in touch with people. But, I also know when to turn it off and focus on other work. As long as you take a balanced approach to relationship building as part of your jobs, you can still get all of your real work done today, while setting yourself and your team up to be even more productive over the long-term.
This is why I am sad to see organizations blocking access to social networks for employees. This is a short-sighted move made out of fear that a few employees will abuse it without any thought to the long-term benefits. Educating employees about productive uses of social networks and measuring employees based on what they deliver and accomplish is how you make sure that people are doing real work and not goofing off. You could block most of the Internet, and the people who want to goof off will still find a way to avoid doing work. However, if you stay focused on measuring output, you can deal with poor performers and figure out which employees are doing great work without preventing them from building longer-term business relationships that will make your organization more successful over time.
Photo by Dawn Foster used with permission.