The impact of personal social media use at work

“Information and communication technologies can offer employees more autonomy in organising their work because it becomes easier to stay connected and have more control on where, when and how they work”

Social media can blur the boundaries between personal and professional lives. It can be a force for good, opening us up to new ideas and connections. It can also encroach on our personal time and space, such as responding to work-related requests and conversations when we’re no longer on the company time.

Research published in New Technology, Work and Engagement  looked at the impact of personal social media use for work. Ward van Zoonen and Ronald. E. Rice were interested in apparent paradoxes, such as the idea that using personal social media for work can empower but also enslave.

The research

“Information and communication technologies can also generate increased work pressure as employees (whether unwittingly or not) intensify their work effort and time because it is easier or more expected to do so”

364 employees from across three large, multinational telecommunications and consultancy companies participated in the study. Only employees who worked at least 20 hours per week in teams with a minimum of 10 employees could take part. All participants completed an online survey.

The researchers drew on and combined two paradigms in their exploration:

  • Technological determinism – the typically intended, directed and positive effects of technology use on organisational outcomes; and
  • Social constructionism – how users and social processes shape their meaning and use of information and communication technology within and across organisations.

The findings

  1. Employees who used personal social media for work purposes expressed higher levels of autonomy. In turn, autonomy was linked to increased work engagement.
  2. Employees who used personal social media for work purposes said they experienced more work pressure. Increased work pressure was more likely to lead to feelings of work-related exhaustion.
  3. The more responsive an employee was when using social media for work, the less autonomy they were likely to feel.

The researchers also looked at the extent to which age, tenure or working hours impacted the findings. They found that older employees and long tenure employees expressed more autonomy and less work pressure. This might be to do with older and/or long tenure meaning more senior roles in the organisation and more experience in handling competing demands. They also found that the amount of hours worked per week were positively associated with work engagement, although provide no detail on this.

Implications and solutions

Sharlyn Lauby wrote an interesting piece on her blog about whether there was a link between technology use and burnout. She offers sage advice for organisations,

“Organizations that rely on technology to accomplish their goals and ask employees to use technology in their work, should help employees understand effective ways to use their technology”

This is also about choice. Some employees might enjoy engaging in work-related things when they are not officially at work. They might be engaging out of choice, rather than doing it because it’s expected of them. It’s important, therefore, that any changes you might bring in take this in to account.

This gets to the very heart of the research by van Zoonen and Rice. Namely that clear boundaries and ‘rules’ are needed to help employees protect against exhaustion whilst not impeding autonomy.

Here are three simple things you can do:

  1. Have scheduled non-available times: This is the case both in work and out of work. For example, people could switch all their devices off during team meetings, or leave their phone behind at lunch and go for a walk.
  2. Clarify expectations: Employees feeling they need to respond immediately is one thing that can turn social media use for work in to a burden. Agreeing what is a reasonable response time is one way to off-set that, although this also relies on the employee to stick to that.
  3. Talk about it: If your team is one where people use personal social media for work-related purposes, why not make it a regular agenda item? This can be at team meetings and in one-to-ones. Consciously talking about it can heighten awareness and give you a clearer sense of any potential problem areas.

Related posts:

Research reference:

van Zoonen, W. & Rice, R.E. (2017). Paradoxical implications of personal social media use for work. New Technology, Work and Employment, 32(3), 228-246.

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