For three days last March, Amanda Carpenter's job description with Toronto-Dominion Bank expanded temporarily to include the role of official blogger at the company's annual general meeting in Victoria. Her mission: to share with bank employees across the country her candid observations of the conference and answer any questions posted on the comments section of her blog page.
"I was blogging about every six hours, talking a bit about the seminars but mostly about how people were reacting to being at the AGM," says Ms. Carpenter, a 24-year-old financial adviser who works at a branch in Nanaimo, about 110 kilometres from the B.C. capital. "It was a great experience for me, and something new because it was my first time blogging."
While the three-day assignment was novel for Ms. Carpenter, the idea of her employer using social media to talk to its workers wasn't new to her – or to any of TD's 85,000 employees. About four years ago, the bank refashioned its internal website into a social media platform, with blogs, chat forums, surveys, and a function that lets employees leave comments not only on blog pages but also at the end of news items and memos.
"Social media is a great employee engagement tool," said Wendy Arnott, vice-president of social media and digital communications for the bank. "Employee communication is even better when it's two-way."
Tapping in to employees
Businesses initially saw social media as another way to market goods and services to customers. Now it's gaining traction within companies as an effective way to reach workers, and to connect workers with each other. In a survey conducted this year for the San Francisco-based International Association of Business Communicators Research Foundation, almost 70 per cent of companies said they use social media for internal communication – up from 45 per cent in a similar survey last year.
"The use of social media internally is definitely something I'm seeing more with my clients," said Eli Singer, head of Entrinsic, a Toronto communications agency that specializes in social media strategies. "Companies are starting to believe that this is important for their organization."
And the trend is growing: Massachusetts-based Forrester Research estimates global spending on corporate social media of up to $5-billion by 2013. Companies are drawn to it for many reasons, including quicker access to information, reduced costs for communication and travel, and increased employee satisfaction.
At Sun Life Financial Inc., social media is helping the company tap into the brains of its employees across three continents through features such as blogs, online communities, wikis – where employees can create content on particular topics, à la Wikipedia – and Facebook-type walls where people can update their status or leave quick notes for co-workers. Last year, Sun Life tested a function that allowed to workers to respond to colleagues' ideas by registering a score, voting ideas "up" or "down," or suggesting their own idea.
"We ran this as a pilot project … and got a lot of actionable ideas as a result," said Bill McCollam, vice-president of digital strategy for Sun Life Financial in Toronto. "Now we're getting ready to launch it as part of our regular process."
Each Sun Life employee has a spot on the social media site to build a detailed personal profile, which makes it easier for managers and co-workers to find people with certain skills or experience for a particular project, he said.
The casual nature of social media seems to put people at ease, so that even timid employees who would normally not speak up at meetings are finding their voice online, said TD's Ms. Arnott.
"In a social media setting, people seem to feel more comfortable asking the tough questions or digging for more information," she added. "And the dialogue that spontaneously happens in social media is often where you get that depth of understanding that you may not always get in other forms of internal communication."
Attracting young talent
Being able to blog or chat online with co-workers is probably not on top of a job applicant's list of must-haves, said Mr. Singer. But for companies looking to snag the best and brightest Generation Y workers, having internal social media could give them an edge over other employers.
"Organizations that offer these tools will be seen as more forward-thinking," Mr. Singer said. "Gen Ys today are so tech-savvy and they already have access to all this great technology at home; they expect to see some of these at work as well."
Mr. McCollom agrees. "We are engaged in a real battle for getting good people to Sun Life, and more and more, Gen Y comes to us with the expectation that they'll be able to work in a manner that they worked when they were in college and university," he said. "That means being able to use collaborative tools like blogs, wikis and real-time chat."
Social media can also play a key role in employee retention, he said, because it makes it easier for workers to connect with each other and build relationships – a big deal, especially, for remote or telecommuting workers.
Workers looking to bolster their careers would be wise to take advantage of social media in their workplace, said Heather Huhman, founder and president of Come Recommended LLC, a marketing and public relations firm in Washington.
Social media functions (such as "mentions" and "hash tags") can help employees draw attention to their accomplishments in a way that's more subtle than, say, announcing them at a department meeting, she noted.
The mention function lets workers post a message to everyone in the company and at the same time send an e-mail alert about the message to certain people, such as the boss. A hash tag, which is created by putting the hash or pound sign before a key word, makes it easy to find postings on a particular topic.
"For example, if every time you post about a successful project you put a hash tag on the word 'accomplishment,' managers will be able to see all your successes by simply clicking on the word 'accomplishment,'" Ms. Huhman explained. "If you know how to use it, social media can be a very useful tool for advancing your career."
Special to The Globe and Mail
ON THE JOB
How to use social media in the workplace
TIPS FOR EMPLOYEES
Speak up: Be active in online discussions. If you have something to share, don't be shy – just start typing.
Toot your horn: Update your online status whenever you've accomplished something at work, using functions such as mentions and hash tags. Doing this is a lot more subtle than e-mailing the boss or crowing at a meeting.
Mind your manners: Social media is a casual space, but you still need to observe workplace etiquette and your employer's code of conduct.
TIPS FOR EMPLOYERS
Get full support from your top leaders: For internal social media to work, senior executives – starting from the CEO – need to show employees they're all for it. And they need to be active social media users.
Make it for everyone: While it may not be possible – or wise – to give each employee a blog, everyone in the company should be able to contribute their ideas.
Keep it open and spontaneous: Filter blogs and comments only for offensive language or remarks that breach your code of conduct. To make sure the online conversations remain professional, do not allow anonymous postings.