Social media has become a key component of the fabric of our everyday lives. We check our notifications from bed in the morning and fall asleep checking them at night. And, for many people, checking social media happens regularly during their work day as well.
Obviously, if you’re scrolling through Facebook, you aren’t working. Many workplaces respond to this apparent productivity issue by setting up firewalls, implementing strict social media policies, and closely monitoring employee internet use.
But does checking your social media accounts from your desk actually impact your overall productivity? What if you’re just taking a break? What makes checking social media so compulsive? And if you are having trouble controlling your social media use, how do you stop?
The Modern-Day Water Cooler
There’s one thing we need to get straight before we dive into the research: getting distracted at work is nothing new. Often, anything that takes away from work activities is seen as “bad” by management. The expectation is that employees will give 100 percent of their attention to their job tasks at all times while on the clock.
Of course, that’s not true. It never has been.
For most jobs, other so-called distractions already exist. The classic “chat at the water cooler” is just one timeless example of the many ways that employees find to distract themselves. While limiting extreme time-wasting behaviors is typical workplace policy, there’s also a general assumption that some workplace conversations or distractions are just a part of daily life.
It is true that different jobs (and different tasks within those jobs) will require different amounts of engagement and awareness. After all, the idea of a brain surgeon checking his Twitter feed halfway through your operation is a little extreme.
But that same brain surgeon may check his Facebook part way through writing up your surgical report, and that’s much less concerning.
“I’m Just Going to Check This Notification…”
While workplace distractions are nothing new, social media is a new phenomenon with different rules. Social media use is innately human. We’re responding to the same social stimuli we always have. However, now they’re in electronic form and more accessible than ever before.
And platforms are capitalizing on this. Every social media app and website is actively designed to be as addicting as possible. You will spend more of your time using it.
The research is pretty conclusive. Research at Harvard and Rutgers University shows that receiving a Like on social media, participating in sharing information about yourself, and interacting with loved ones online all activate the dopamine system in your brain. The dopamine system is a reward pathway. When it’s triggered, it essentially releases a signal to your body that something good has happened and that you want more of it as soon as possible!
Social media’s addictive nature becomes pretty clear when you look at phone usage habits. A recent study indicates that the average millennial spends over two hours a day using their phone. They check it approximately 157 times. Other research suggests that 18 percent of social media users can’t go beyond a few hours without checking Facebook, and that two-thirds of people check their newsfeed at least once a day.
I want to be clear that using social media isn’t bad. Nor is feeling the dopamine rush from hearing a “ping” on your cell. That physiological response is part of being human, and there are many ways that social media is accomplishing great things.
But social media might be accomplishing those things during your workday — and that’s what has employers concerned.
How Distracted Are We, Really?
The research about how distracting social media is in the workplace is somewhat mixed.
- One study found that 66.7 percent of office workers visited social networking sites from the office — a greater percentage than the 58.3 percent who visited the sites from home.
- A survey of 237 corporate employees showed that 77 percent of them checked websites during work hours. It resulted in a 1.5 percent decrease in productivity.
- Yet another study found that workers were spending, on average, 32 percent of their time on social media at work every day. They lose 13 percent of total productivity.
- In a self-report survey, it was almost an even split between workers who felt social media distracted them from the work they needed to do (54 percent) and those who disagreed (42 percent).
These mixed results are somewhat expected as no two workplaces are the same, and many of these studies focused on a single workplace or work environment.
But research also suggests that bosses’ critiques of social media are valid for additional reasons. Social media use at work increases the potential for online damage to a business’s reputation, data leaks, cyber crook scams, and access to an organization’s information. Plus, as mentioned above, social media is addicting! Those forced to go “cold turkey” while at work may legitimately be anxious, disconnected, or craving social contact.
Further, does it matter whether you are actually being less productive by spending time on social media if your boss perceives you to be wasting time? I hate to play into generational stereotypes, but this kind of perceptual mismatch is especially common in our environment right now. Younger workers are often under the supervision of a boss who did not grow up with constant technology use as part of the workforce.
Why Are Employees Using Social Media at Work?
Dr. Brent Coker from Australia’s University of Melbourne released a study on social media use and office productivity in 2011. It completely contradicts the established narrative. In fact, his research suggests that spending less than 20 percent of your total time in the office visiting websites of personal interest can increase your productivity by about 9 percent more than those who do not. These findings are similar to a 2007 study. It found 70 percent of people who used the internet for personal surfing experienced improved concentration afterward.
It’s also worth considering the role that social media directly plays in improving work performance: 34 percent of survey respondents reported using social media to take a break, 17 percent reported using it to foster co-worker relationships, and 12 percent reported using it to ask work-related questions of people inside and outside their organization.
That’s not even considering the many ways employees use social media to learn new skills, collaborate on documents, host virtual meetings, recruit new employees, and share knowledge with each other. Social media is a key component of a new learning strategy named “learning on demand.”
Unlike formal learning (such as official training and courses), this learning method is self-motivated, autonomous, and informal. Social media sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are often used in the same way past generations would ask their cubicle neighbor questions or observe other employees performing tasks.
How Do We Break Workplace Social Media Addictions?
Your relationship to social media is highly individualized. Only you can really judge if your time spent scrolling is beneficial to your mental health, or if it’s bringing you down. But, your boss likely also has some decent insight into how your social media time is influencing your workplace habits and productivity.
Ultimately, the best approach to a social media detox is a combination of personal and professional approaches.
Breaking Your Own Social Media Addiction
- Consider just monitoring your daily phone and social media use through tracking apps and programs like RescueTime (Mac, PC, Android, Linux), Moment (iOS), or App Usage (Android).
- If you already know you have a problem, consider using a program that blocks access to certain websites at specific times of the day. Self Control (Mac) and Cold Turkey (Windows) are good examples.
- If you do better with positive reinforcement, consider using an app like Forest (iOS, Android, Web). It rewards you for time spent away from your screen.
- Take different kinds of breaks. Go for a walk. read a book, chat with a coworker, or make a phone call. All of these things will rejuvenate you just as much as time spent on social media, if not more!
Workplace Strategies for Employers
- Have a comprehensive social media strategy in place tailored to your unique workplace environment. It will protect your business from online threats.
- Avoid vilifying social media use. Overly restrictive policies may cause employees to seek other employment.
- Avoid blocking social media sites. Like many other workplace tools, it’s not the sites themselves that are the problem. By blocking social media sites like YouTube, Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook, you may prevent employees from accessing important learning resources.
- Influence workplace culture to be more challenging and aspirational. Provide time in the day for employees to practice self care.
What’s Your Take?
Despite all of the research that’s out there, we still don’t totally understand social media’s role in the workplace. We know that a lot of employees spend a lot of their time at work using social media. In some cases this negatively impacts productivity, but in others, it seems to boost employee morale (and productivity with it).
Full disclosure: I easily spent an hour or more on a combination of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram while writing this article. On one hand, I’m sure I could have written faster without it. On the other hand, I would have missed out on two of my sources (found through a Twitter conversation) and maybe become burnt out earlier in the day.
What has your experience been with social media in the workplace? Is it essential for your position, or can you take it or leave it? Do you have strategies for avoiding social media addiction? Whether you’re an employee or an employer, I’d love to hear all about your experiences in the comments below!