Social Media in the Workplace: Everything You Need to Know

Learn everything you need to know about social media in the workplace, including: the pros and cons of social media at work, whether you should allow it, and the right way to harness it for maximum business benefit.

Spoiler alert: social media in the workplace is here to stay. 

In fact, 8 in 10 workers say they use social media at work. 

And 98% of employees use social media for personal use, with 50% already posting about their company online.

If you think those numbers are high - social media might become even more pervasive in the workplace. 

In 2016, millennials became the largest generation in the workforce. This generation of digital natives and heavy social media users continues to grow.

Younger, “digital native” generations are making up more and more of the workforce

Post-millennial generations - arguably even more digitally “native” than millennials - have also started entering the workforce in meaningful numbers.

How is social media used in the workplace?

It varies from company to company, but there are definitely some common themes. 

We’ll break down social media use in the workplace from three main perspectives:

  • Technology - what technologies represent social media use at work?
  • Function - what functions are leveraging social media in the workplace?
  • Employees - how are employees actually using social media at work?

Curious how social media entered the workplace in the first place? Check out a quick recap of the history of social media since the 2000s. Otherwise, skip ahead.

A (Very) Brief History of Social Media

The early days of social media (2000s) were simpler.

Back then, social networks served a much smaller segment of the population and offered limited functionality, compared to what we use in 2020 and beyond.

For instance, Facebook started out as little more than a digital directory of people at schools. One of its more popular features? The “poke”:

Facebook Poke

Over time, social media evolved. 

A few college students in the US turned into millions, and then billions, of users around the world. 

Businesses joined in droves, since that’s where their consumers were hanging out. 

Social media itself became big business: networks began monetizing their ever-growing user bases by letting companies advertise to users.

Eventually, one or two major social networks turned into dozens of more differentiated networks with a variety of use cases, from text-style communicating (WhatsApp) to photo sharing (Pinterest, Instagram) to productivity (Slack). At the same time, mobile surpassed desktop as the primary way people use the internet, growing 222% between 2013 and 2019.

With an ever-growing social media landscape and mobile usage ruling the day, it was inevitable that social media would make its way into the workplace - most often via the phone that employees carry in their pockets.

Social media in the workplace, by technology

The constant evolution of technology has led to a variety of social media tools in the workplace.

Here are some of the most common:

Traditional Social Media Platforms and Networking Sites. Examples include Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram. Typically, these are used by both the company in an official capacity (i.e. to represent the brand online), but also by employees for personal use.

Video & Photo Sharing Sites. Here you have YouTube, Flickr, even Instagram and TikTok. (These technologies sometimes fall in multiple categories.) As with more traditional platforms, there is often official company use and also personal employee use.

Messaging Platforms. Think Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat. For many users around the world, they have fully replaced traditional SMS messaging.

Blogs, Online Forums, Message Boards. Popular examples include Quora, Reddit, and more niche industry-specific sites like Stack Overflow (for software development).

Internal Messaging Systems. Here we get further inside the enterprise with collaboration and productivity software like Slack and Microsoft’s Teams. These typically include chat/messaging functionality, and have a focus on getting work done so file sharing is a must.

Employee Advocacy Tools. Examples include Swaybase (writers of this article) and LinkedIn Elevate. These tools enable companies to communicate with their employees for announcements, news, and other interesting content. Employees can then share that content with their personal networks to drive word-of-mouth for the company. Less noisy and more outward-facing / social than chat software like Slack, these tools help bridge the gap between the inside of your organization and the outside world - namely via your employees trusted (and vast) personal networks.

Blogs. Blog posts, especially when syndicated and/or found via social media or search engines, are social in nature. Add blog post comments to the mix, and you can see how they can drive online discussion.

Knowledge Centers / Wikis / Communities of Practices. These often custom repositories of knowledge and expertise are crowdsourced internally by employees. They contribute their knowledge, method, or case study, and colleagues can enjoy the benefit of previous experience instead of starting from scratch on their projects.

Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive - there are variations on nearly all of these categories.

But that covers the most common social media tools seen in the workplace.

Social media in the workplace, by function

Technology is just one piece of the puzzle with social media at work.

Equally important is the functional use of social media.

That is, which function or department is using it at work, and how are they using it?

Here are the major players:

Marketing. Unsurprisingly, marketing is one of the key owners of a company’s more traditional social media channels like LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram. Their objective with social media is to drive awareness, interest, and ultimately a purchase, all while using a consistent brand voice in their marketing materials. However, they have an increasingly difficult problem to solve: how to get around organic reach and engagement that’s steadily declining for brands. If companies have the budget, they may pay to have their posts be seen by their followers - but even that option has its issues, since consumers don’t believe ads. That’s why many marketing teams bypass these issues altogether with another form of social media in the workplace covered above: employee advocacy. That is, having their employees serve as brand ambassadors for the company on their personal social media accounts.

Communications / PR. Traditionally, this function relies on social media to make announcements about the company, to monitor sentiment and what’s being said, and to respond to public relations crises. In recent years, however, comms has become an even more strategic piece of the business; through the use of internal comms tools, they can help foster a stronger connection between a company and its employees, the most important piece of internal marketing. This can result in a number of benefits, including increased employee satisfaction and engagement, greater brand reach, more trusted marketing, and improved recruiting and employer brand.

HR. We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of HR practitioners who use social media at work. Specifically, recruiters are looking to diversity the content they post on social media so that it isn’t just job postings. And it makes a lot of sense. Many recruiters have connected with thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of candidates online. When recruiters share interesting content about their company and industry, the candidates in the recruiters’ networks will see that content, keeping that company top of mind.

Customer Support. By now there’s a good chance you’ve interacted with a company’s customer support team via social media. For instance, American Airlines has an incredibly active social media team that seemingly responds to every social media mention. This type of social media use enables business-to-consumer (and many business-to-business) companies to address most issues in real time, limiting customer frustration and avoiding long wait times on the phone.

Sales. With 4 out of 5 social sellers outselling colleagues who don't use social media, sales and social media are a natural fit. Salespeople use social media at work to share interesting content with their networks, helping to position them as subject matter experts and stay top of mind with prospects.

Learning & Development. We mentioned above some of the internal social tools that teams use to share knowledge. Teams in charge of the learning and development function within a company usually leverage these technologies to centralize courses, training materials, shared documents, and more. As with external-facing technology, internal tech usually provides statistics around employee usage and engagement so that L&D teams can track if they’re meeting their goals.

Social media in the workplace, employee perspective

Finally, it’s equally important to ask employees themselves - why do you use social media at work?

Here’s what employees say about their social media use at work:

  • 34% to take a break from work
  • 27% to connect with friends/family
  • 24% to make/support professional connections
  • 20% to get info that helps them solve problems at work
  • 17% to build/strengthen relationships with coworkers
  • 17% to learn about a colleague
  • 12% to ask work-related questions of people external to their organization
  • 12% to ask work-related questions of colleagues

Clearly, employees use social media at work for a variety of reasons.

What’s striking is how much of that use is personal and professional.

Which leads to the question: should we allow social media use at work?

Should social media be allowed in the workplace? Or should you block access to social media?

In the early days of social media, this was a valid question. The technology was new, and its use was not as widespread as it is today.

But nowadays, social media use at work is simply a given.

We’ve already established that 8 in 10 employees use social media at work - often through their personal phones. And that’s regardless of whether the company has a social media policy in place.

We’ve also established that there are multiple uses for social media that directly tie back to the business, such as chat and knowledge sharing.

So to block social media at work is, in this day and age, very unlikely to be the right answer for your business.

In fact, it’s probably impossible to pull off.

So the real question is: how can you best harness social media in the workplace?

To answer that, let’s first look at pros and cons.

That way, we can devise an approach that accentuates the pros, and minimizes the cons.

If your company's leadership is adamant about blocking social media at work, of course you can show them the data that most people already use social media in the workplace. But you can also take inventory of (and then point to) all the social media-based tools your company already uses.

What are the pros and cons of using social media at work?

Rather than turn our backs on social media in the workplace, let’s get even smarter about it.

Let’s look at each of the pros and cons associated with it at work.

We can then be strategic about how to harness social media use in the workplace, so that we’re maximizing the benefit for the business.

Pros of social media in the workplace

Communications & Networking

First and foremost, social media is a communication and networking tool.

It’s no surprise then that 82% of employees say social media can improve work relationships and 60% say it can support decision-making processes.

Furthermore, employees who use social media for work (3 out of every 4 employees) stated the following benefits:

  • 71% - staying in touch with others in the same field
  • 56% - connecting with experts
  • 51% - getting to know co-workers on a personal level

Engagement

Social media in the workplace can actually increase employee engagement.

This phenomenon has been seen time and again in studies.

For instance, 54% of employees who use social media for work say that social media helps them recharge at work.

Furthermore, employees who interact with coworkers online via social media blogs are more motivated and come up with innovative ideas.

And while it goes without saying, the many follow-on benefits of employee engagement include higher productivity, happier customers, and reduced turnover.

Brand Recognition

Outside your company, you have two particular kinds of people you want to attract: buyers and talent.

You may have one but not the other - for instance, there are countless B2B companies that have great brand recognition among potential customers, but very little to no recognition among potential candidates.

Worse yet, you may be weak in both areas.

Regardless, one of the best ways we’ve seen companies quickly build awareness in both areas is through word of mouth.

And one of the best word of mouth engines is a company’s own employee base.

That’s because a company’s employees have connections. And lots of them.

In Swaybase’s work with companies of all sizes, we often see multi-billion dollar corporations whose employee bases have hundreds of times more social media followers, collectively, than the company itself.

Want to estimate how many followers your employees have as a group? Here's how. Assume ~1,000 followers per employee across their various social media accounts (as a general rule of thumb). Then multiply that 1,000 followers per employee by the number of employees at your company. For example, if you have 5,000 employees:

5,000 employees x 1,000 followers per employee = 5,000,000 total followers in your employees' networks.

By embracing social media in the workplace, these companies open the door for their employees to speak on behalf of the company to their massive (and as mentioned earlier in this post, trusted) personal networks.

The result is almost always a stronger employer brand and consumer brand.

Cons of social media in the workplace

As we noted earlier, employees are already using social media at work.

So the question to keep in mind when reviewing the potential cons is: how can a company minimize these cons given that employees already use social media at work?

Let’s now review the cons. Then in the final section we’ll lay out a plan that will ensure you double down on the benefits while minimizing the downsides.

Distraction

As you’ve likely experienced yourself, it’s easy to get distracted when using social media.

Of course, the business models of social networks rely on that distraction. The more time you spend on social media, the more money-making ads these social networks can show you.

But that doesn’t mean your employees need to get lost perusing social media.

In fact, with a little bit of planning and some smart tactics (which we’ll share below), you can help focus your employees’ attention and drastically limit the odds that they drift off into the social media ether.

Employee Turnover

While employees who use social media at work are more engaged, they are also more likely to leave for another company. This is typically because they make new connections and come across new organizations.

Of course, as we’ve said all along, this behavior is likely already happening. So it’s not really about whether to allow social media at work.

The real question is: what do you do about this phenomenon?

And regarding social media and employee turnover, there are two points to keep in mind.

First, you can realign employees’ social networking attention to be more collaborative with colleagues and internal-facing, reducing the risk of turnover.

Second, other companies are also facing the risk of employee turnover through social media use - which represents an employer branding and recruiting opportunity for you.

We’ll now tell you exactly how you can capitalize on both of those points.

The right way to harness social media in the workplace

We’ve established that social media is a powerful tool at work, leading to engagement and productivity.

We also know that it’s a moot point - social media is already in the workplace, whether company leaders like it or not. Your employees are using it every day.

So the question is how to best harness social media at work.

Here are the three steps you need to implement to fully utilize the power of social media in the workplace.

Step 1: Use Internal Marketing to Solidify Your Employees’ Support

For successful use of social media at work, you need to start with the basics.

In this case, that’s an employee base that supports your company and is generally engaged at work.

Sure, your employees may work for your company. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you automatically have their full support.

So how do you get that support?

Just like any consumer, your employees need to be convinced of the product. In this case, the product is your mission, vision, and culture.

The very best companies are deliberate about convincing their employees, through what’s called internal marketing.

Internal marketing is the promotion of your company’s vision, mission, and culture to your employees with the objective of gaining their support.

There’s a good chance your company is already doing some internal marketing. Some common tactics include:

  • Consistent communication of company’s mission, vision, & values
  • Having a strong, clear company strategy in place
  • Seeking & acting on employee feedback
  • Centralized communication
  • Company-wide brainstorming for new products/services
  • Using your own product/service
  • ...and much more
Some of these things may sound pretty standard or obvious. But get this step right, and you’ll drastically reduce the likelihood that your employees get distracted on social media or start looking elsewhere for opportunities.

Step 2: Develop the Right Social Media Policy for Your Company

With a supportive and engaged employee base, you can focus your attention on social media.

Specifically, you’ll need to ensure your social media policy is right for your company.

For example, you’ll want to make sure that your social media policy describes:

  • Roles on social media, including who can officially speak on behalf of the company and who can’t
  • What is, and is not, acceptable conduct and content
  • Regulations, legal requirements, and the handling of sensitive information, especially in heavily regulated industries
  • Procedures for handling conflicts or crises
  • How your employees can participate in spreading the word about the company and why they enjoy working for you

The good thing is, even if you don’t have an official social media policy, you don’t need to start from scratch.

There are plenty of good social media policy examples to learn from, and free templates you can use right away.

Step 3: Embrace Employee Advocacy

You’ve got your employees’ support and engagement.

You’ve also got a solid social media policy to guide their social media use.

Now it’s time to take full advantage of social media in the workplace by embracing employee advocacy.

With employee advocacy, your employees serve as your ambassador on their own personal social media accounts.

By actively participating as social media ambassadors, your employees will build their personal brand, help the company recruit top talent, and drive the company’s sales and marketing activities.

With employee advocacy, you’ll empower your employees to share:

  • why they enjoy working for you
  • how they feel supported by their manager or mentor
  • the latest experience they had with a customer who shared how your product or service impacted their life
  • the latest company news and developments
  • and anything else that helps set your company apart from the crowd.

And with a dedicated employee advocacy program and technology, you can make it foolproof for your employees by providing them with pre-approved content in one central location. They can then share that content with their personal social networks with the click of a button.

Wrap Up

Hopefully you’ve seen how a seemingly complicated topic like social media in the workplace can actually be simplified and turned to your advantage.

Just by reframing the question.

Because it’s not about if your employees should be using social media at work.

We know they already are.

It’s about how you can leverage that activity for the benefit of the business and your employees.

With that mindset, and with a few practical steps, you’ll take full advantage of the opportunity that social media in the workplace represents.

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