Employee engagement: decoding social media for the workplace

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Social media is an all-pervasive part of modern life, but HR teams are still struggling to keep up with the pace and develop an organisational approach to it. 

You only have to look around to see how widespread social media has become. From sharing updates on the train to posting pictures while on holiday - engaging with others has taken on a whole new meaning.

It happens in real-time, on the move and in practically any location.

So how does social media translate to the workplace, and how should HR managers approach this?

Research from Acas shows that while many employers are keen to exploit social media tools to develop their external image or promote their products and services, far fewer are using it to engage with their staff.

This is surprising as technology continues to revolutionise the way we work, so you would expect social media to have had a similar effect in terms of staff engagement. It’s useful to think about what social media has to offer employers when it comes to employee involvement.

Engaging with all staff

The Acas research provides an in-depth look at how some employers are using social media inside the workplace.

Available social media platforms specifically for work purposes include 'Yammer', 'Jive' or more bespoke tools which are based online and geared towards open and transparent communications between colleagues and management.

Employee voice is all about enabling staff to voice their opinions, concerns and ideas about their work and their organisation at large. 

This can mean anything from simply posting updates online to taking part in problem-solving using managed group conversations.

Unsurprisingly, it tends to be larger businesses that are more likely to be making use of this kind social media where it’s especially valued as a tool to engage remote workers or those working across different locations.

This theme was clearly highlighted in the research. 

Southeastern, one of the firms interviewed as part of the research, faced huge challenges engaging with its staff, as it employs around 4,000 people across hundreds of stations, offices and depots in London.

After trialling a number of options, they finally chose to create a bespoke social media tool to share information and expertise across the organisation.

The bespoke tool helped to bring staff together and provide support in dealing with work issues, as explained by their Policies and Procedures Manager: “Often if there’s a problem, people will post it up to alert others or get answers, and people will provide solutions and solve a problem for themselves”.

Social media versus other employee voice channels

Employee voice is all about enabling staff to voice their opinions, concerns and ideas about their work and their organisation at large. 

From the employer perspective, this means encouraging discussion, seeking input from staff, feeding back and taking on board different views.

This is important, as much research has shown that organisations with strong employee voice mechanisms are more engaged and in turn more productive.

Using social media at work is just one way of enabling this, as staff can be a part of organisational developments and communicate with others - but how does this work alongside other means of employee voice?

Findings from the most recent Workplace Employment Relations Study shows that some of the most widespread means of engaging with employees include all staff workplace meetings and team meetings.

It seems that workplaces seem to be opting for a combination of face-to-face and online communication.

While managers increasingly favour regular use of emails as a means of consulting with all staff, use of email for consultation rose from 35% in 2004 to 49% in 2011.

It seems that workplaces seem to be opting for a combination of face-to-face and online communication, but it may be argued that using social media inside the workplace can appeal to those who lack confidence to speak up in meetings, or maybe favour more non-direct forms of engagement. 

There are also some clear benefits for organisations using social media and bespoke online tools for engagement. Take other forms of employee voice such as staff surveys – these are often only conducted once a year or less, and can take several weeks to report. In contrast, in-house social media tools enable results in real time, allowing organisations to continually assess employee views and identify any challenges.  

Fear of misuse?

While the benefits of social media at work are starting to become more apparent - there are other concerns about its misuse, its relevance and it being a distraction from the day job.

It’s a complex area, as part of this perception stems from employers often seeing a blurring between how social media is used in a personal capacity and at work.

For instance, employees using social media outside of work to talk disparagingly about their workplace. This type of thing often leads employers to the perception that staff will use social media platforms set up for work purposes in an inappropriate manner, but how true are these claims?

Social media inside the workplace can appeal to those who lack confidence to speak up in meetings.

The experience of those employers interviewed as part of the research showed that far from being used inappropriately - employees tended to be mindful of using social media for work purposes when it’s been set up by their employer.

In fact, Hotspots Movement, a social media provider included in the research and specialising in running 'Jams' which are facilitated online discussions on business critical issues had experienced very few instances of misuse: “In all the Jams we have run over the past four years and the tens of thousands of comments, we have removed only two.”

There was also a strong sense that while social media works effectively when all levels of staff are involved, it needs endorsement from senior management to set the tone and purpose of its use. 

Good practice points for HR managers

  1. Have clear and simple social media policies in place
    This includes having a policy in place for how employees use social media in a personal capacity but in relation to work, but also having a policy for using social media tools created for work purposes. Clear policies act as valuable safety nets should things go wrong. They also help create the boundary between what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.  In drawing up clear social media policies, involving staff in this process will ensure that policies are reasonable and easy to understand. (Read What to consider when preparing your social media policy for more detail on this).
     
  2. Make sure that social media tools for staff engagement have a clear purpose
    It’s important to identify why you want to use social media as an engagement tool in your organisation. This will help you to determine what you need to get out of it.  For some employers it may be about building a sense of community amongst staff, while for others it could be about seeking insight on particular business critical issues. Whatever your purpose is – make this clear to staff as this will ensure appropriate staff buy-in to it.
     
  3. Getting the balance right
    While social media tools work particularly well at engaging with the staff across all levels, the research shows the need for senior management to get on board initially to demonstrate its importance and purpose.  However, it’s important to get the balance right once it becomes the norm, as too much involvement from senior management can make it look like a ‘top-down’ communication tool which may be less effective.

The full Acas report ‘Going digital? Harnessing Social Media for Employee Voice’ can be accessed here. The Acas website also has guidance on what a policy should contain

Interested in this topic? Read Engaging employees in the age of social media.

 

About Rachel Pinto

Rachel Pinto, Acas

I'm Rachel and I work on policy research at Acas.  We aim to promote good employment relations, and help employers and employees in navigating work issues. 

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