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Blocking social media sites won't stop 'time thieves'

Woman with laptop

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The story of Franklin Andrews, who was fired in 2009 for spending more than half his day browsing the Web and downloading in excess of 300 pornographic photos, serves as a reminder that, for some, the Internet is just one big distraction.

When I speak at conferences on how to build a successful social media strategy, at least one executive usually asks me about the benefits of blocking access to Twitter, YouTube, and other popular sites in an attempt to avoid 'time theft,' the term used to describe the offence Andrews allegedly committed while working at the Department of Citizenship and Immigration in Ottawa.

My answer is usually a firm 'no;' that it doesn't make sense to block social media usage at work. For starters, there are plenty of other sites where employees can waste time, and restricting all access is a clear sign that you don't trust your employees. Moreover, if you're keen on recruiting a younger generation of workers, you'll have a tough time convincing them that blocking sites like Facebook is for their own good. Also, don't forget that most workers come armed with smartphones, so they can surf as they see fit.

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So where does this leave an employer? Naturally, no one wants people who work for them wasting time. In my experience, part of the problem lies at the management level. Bosses rarely provide employees with guidelines for social media usage, so employees are left to do what they want (unaware of the consequences). One company I met recently explained they were 100 per cent committed to using YouTube to reach out to their clients, but their employees were blocked from watching online videos during work hours. This approach can be counterproductive on the marketing front since many social media strategies work best when you build community from the inside out. For example, @Zappos is a great example of a company that encourages smart social media practices to build an army of brand ambassadors within the organization.

A more positive approach than banning access to the Internet is educating employees. The Department of Justice in Victoria, Australia, launched this YouTube video to talk about a commonplace approach to using social media at work. It explains how to engage in smart commenting online and asks employees to be respectful about how they use these tools on the job. While an educational and informative social media policy, whether in online form or in video form, won't stop everyone from abusing online access, it's a good start.

Unfortunately there will always be people who don't follow the rules, but technology isn't to blame. Whether it's wasting time online, on the phone, or during a smoke break, these employees will find a way to avoid work and should be dealt with accordingly, but that doesn't mean spoiling the Internet experience for many responsible co-workers. Also, Canada has a serious productivity problem, which could be eased by employers and employees ensuring that they have sufficient productive work to do so that they do not idly pass their time in cyberspace.

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