In a world where hardly anybody is ever offline, digital distractions abound. From scrolling through Facebook to getting rapid-fire news updates on Twitter, to idling away on Instagram, we spend our daily lives sailing on a sea of digital chatter which never seems to abate. But what effect is this constant onslaught having on productivity at work, and the ability to focus on a single task without having to stop for frequent social media breaks? How much of an employee’s online persona reflects who they are as a person? And what does it say about them as an employee?
“Undoubtedly social media has revolutionised the way we communicate with each other, and at face value it would possibly appear that it brings benefits from a business point of view, in so far as people can connect with each other instantly and receive answers in real time,” says Dr Roberta Lepre, Managing Consultant at Weave Consulting. “However, it is also a fact that the constant access to social media through mobile technology is a great distraction, particularly when it comes to tasks which require substantial focus and concentration."
"I am not aware of any local studies which have attempted to measure the impact of such distractions on productivity levels, however my intuitive answer is that social media and other forms of digital communication have a negative impact on labour productivity. I would dare say that it has definitively gotten much worse since the widespread use of mobile technology, and the negative impact is widespread amongst various sectors, both those which are desk-based, as well as those which require interaction with customers and suppliers.”
Dr Lepre says that when it comes to work which requires substantial focus, the worst consequence of digital distraction is that one loses concentration. “The ability to do ‘deep work’ is diminished,” she says. “With regards to customer-facing tasks, I believe that a ‘distracted’ worker is less amenable to give the customer attention and care.” She states that employees should appreciate that their employer is paying them for their time in order to carry out specific work according to their job description, and that unless social media use is related to the task at hand, social network use during working hours should be substantially limited.
“On the other hand, one needs to keep in mind that nowadays an employer-employee relationship is based on mutual trust and respect, and therefore an outright ban might be counter-productive. As with most other issues, a two-way communication system is key. My suggestion to employers is that they should find ways to communicate their concerns to their employees, and allow them to recommend solutions which lead to a win-win situation. I believe that most employees are mature and by engaging them in an appropriate manner, a fair compromise can always be found.”
Josef Said, Managing Director of hiring firm Konnekt, does not consider the rise of social media to have created a particularly unusual phenomenon. “Distractions were, are, and will be everywhere. In the past, the discussion was centred around cigarette breaks or calls received on mobiles.” He says he believes the situation has actually improved in the past few years. “People realise that social media is a time sink. The drop in productivity and a shift in what people do in their leisure time are very hot topics. But there is more awareness that you should control your social media consumption. Apple has also introduced new tools to make their users more aware of how they spend their time.”
Mr Said says that trying to enforce a social media ban can backfire, recalling a client the company had in 2010 that blocked access to Gmail, Yahoo, Facebook and a few other sites. “It was not very smart as they soon realised that everyone moved to using their mobile instead of their work PC. At Konnekt we do not monitor or block any sites. People are trusted and they are accountable – they are aware that if they are silly, there are consequences to actions.”
He suggests instead that employees have to be made aware of the issue, and that expectations have to be set. “If companies have people spending too much time on social media, they must re-think their staffing requirements. In other words, if their employees have time to spare on social media, then they do not have much to do. If someone is abusing, it is simply a question of sitting them down and making your position clear. As explained earlier, nowadays most people have smartphones and mobile data connections are cheap. Playing cat and mouse is useless. The focus needs to be on deliverables and communication.”
Another issue that the rise of social media has raised is how employees should conduct themselves in public social media circles. How many times have we come across someone mouthing off on a Facebook group, for example, hovered over their profile information, and discovered where they work? Doesn’t this reflect badly on the company that employs them?
“Companies should set expectations with their team members. I believe that guidelines are important,” Mr Said says. A company is made up of people and how those people act is a reflection of the company. If anyone is not comfortable with the guidelines, they can move on to another employer. From my experience, people understand this, and are very much on board with the company position.”
Mark J. Galea
Mark J. Galea, Managing Director at Quad Consultancy, agrees that employees need to be made aware that the way they behave also reflects on the company they represent. “Every single person is an individual, and that individual is the same person whether they’re at work, at home, or at leisure. Recently, there was a low-level chef who posted a complaint – on his personal Facebook profile –about the Maltese in general, stating that they know little about food. The negative reaction from the Maltese who saw that post wasn’t only aimed at the junior chef, but also – in the majority – towards the restaurant that employs him.”
Mr Galea says that the same also applies to personal conduct. “Statistics show that many people who make it through the first shortlist of the CVs fall through after the prospective employer looks up their profile on social media. CVs and interviews are a sales exercise for the candidate. However, you can get a more realistic picture of the person you may be employing by taking a look at how they behave in their real life.”
Mr Galea says that being constantly ‘digitally distracted’ does inevitably lead to a loss in productivity. “In the case of customer-facing employees, the negative effects may be directly experienced by customers who are (not) greeted by employees who are more interested in looking at their screens, rather than serving their customers.” However, on a personal level, he is much more interested in productivity than policing their comings and goings online.
“I am completely against banning social media at work. Even if you ban employees’ access from the company’s computers, they can always use their mobile phones. Employers can ban social media, but employees may still waste time at the office around the water cooler, in the kitchenette, in the bathrooms, and other places. So what do we do? Remove all water coolers? Lock down the kitchenettes and the bathrooms?”
“On the other hand, I am definitely in favour of education. I believe that employees should be trained about being smart with their time. If the members of my team work smart enough and hard enough to meet the agreed deadlines, then I don’t mind that they spend time on social media. It becomes a matter of serious concern if unproductive employees waste their time on other issues instead of focussing on their performance.”
Dr Christian Ellul, Director of corporate services provider E&S Group, says that besides the loss of work productivity, overusing social media at work can lead to “weak real-life connections with colleagues, deadlines being missed and low quality of operations. Indeed, we don't approve of wasting time on social networks during working hours, and usually don't provide access to Facebook or Twitter from the desktops in the office, unless the employees are involved in marketing, content writing or communications.” However, he adds that not all social media channels are cut from the same cloth.
“Facebook and Messenger can be really distracting while concentrating on a particular task, but Twitter or LinkedIn can be more industry-oriented, as long as you follow the people and channels which publish useful content.”
On the subject of employee behaviour on social media channels, Dr Ellul says that there should be a distinction between personal social channels and business networks. “There is no opportunity – and usually no real need – to restrict the behaviour of employees on their own Instagram and Twitter. But on social networks like LinkedIn, employees are obliged to mind their language, their followers and the content they publish. Sharing corporate news in personal media, mixing them with jokes or low-quality personal content does not look that favourable.”
This article originally appeared in The Commercial Courier