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As HR professionals, we do everything in our power to ensure that productivity stays high. To keep our employees engaged, we offer remote work options and competitive perks. We double down on diversity and inclusion programs to make sure everyone can enjoy a safe and welcoming workplace. But when it comes to social media, we’re often not sure what to do. More and more sources say that to see real success, leaders need to let go of “culture control” and enable a culture that yields productivity instead. But how does social media impact productivity—and how do you make it work for you?

It’s not exactly straightforward. On the one hand, social media without restrictions can be a source of genuine distraction and, by some estimates, make up 13% of an organization’s lost productivity. On the other hand, cracking down on social media for the sake of output can be a serious hit to morale. To be among the most innovative and agile companies in the market, we need to figure out a way to balance the benefits of social media to productivity while minimizing potential risks. But what’s the approach?

There’s a simple way to think about it. No matter how large your organization or how versed your team is in managing social media, the key to thinking about social media is to remember that as with culture in general, social media increases productivity when it builds connection and trust.

How social media boosts workplace productivity

Trust is the lifeblood of a healthy organization, and the combination of trust and connection generated through proper use of social media in the workplace can be core drivers of culture and innovation. The Harvard Business Review has found that 82% of employees believe that social media can improve their work relationships. Moreover, studies show that employees who engage in social interactions with coworkers through social media tend to come up with innovative ideas more often, become better brand ambassadors, and build relationships that can substantially boost retention.

All of these benefits have a measurable impact on productivity. According to a study by Microsoft, nearly 50% of employees believe that social technologies make them more productive. Looking further into this idea, Cornerstone OnDemand found that employees who use between 1 and 4 social media sites each week are more productive overall and stay longer at their jobs than those who don’t use any social media. To top it off, the McKinsey Global Institute found that companies that take full advantage of the networking benefits of social media platforms can improve employee productivity by as much as 25%.

When social media hurts work performance

But what happens to productivity when social media gets misused and breaks trust between employees? In 2018, the EEOC charged a major airline after a flight attendant contended that an airline pilot had subject them to a hostile work environment for years. The pilot had shared unseemly images of them on the internet and made references to their personal information both to coworkers and the broader public—and the company failed to prevent or correct the behavior. While the inappropriate use of social media ultimately resulted in a suit, the reality is that this attendant’s performance and the performance of those around them were likely impacted years before this was known to the general public.

The employee-employer dynamic can similarly be damaged through misuse of social media, especially during those times when an employee’s behavior becomes volatile. For example, imagine you’ve asked employees to represent your employer brand in a certain way, but you’re not aware that their content shows a pattern of bigoted or threatening statements. Beyond the ways these statements impact coworkers, such misalignment can create brand vulnerabilities for the company, impacting everything from time to fill to employer Net Promoter Scores. Given the ways that social media can be used both for good and for ill, how do we foster connection and trust while keeping our organizations safe?

How to make the most of social media at work

The key is to develop a social media policy that offers autonomy and sets expectations at the same time. Using a combination of guidelines, trainings, and procedures that help you manage potential breaches of policy or respond to concerning incidents, you can minimize the risks and maximize returns of social media. Begin by acknowledging that social media can be a powerful tool. From there, clearly lay out the type of behavior you expect. Once you establish working incentives and guidelines—starting with a smaller group if needed—you can start creating ways to measure the success of your policies.

Social media can help or hurt your organization’s productivity, but it all comes down to how you oversee your company’s digital ecosystem. With the right incentives and policies in place, your employees’ online interactions can generate tremendous value for your organization.

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