Entries from June 2011 ↓

Another study distorts the cost of employee social networking

Shame on CBS Radio News.

On its June 23 6 p.m. (EDT) top-of-the-hour newscast, CBS reported on the results of a study that indicate Facebook and other social networking sites are costing companies lost worker productivity.

I dashed home to find the source of the report. What I found was a month-old study that focused on all manner of workplace distractions. In fact, email processing and switching windows to complete tasks both ranked higher as sources of distraction (33%) than social media activities (20%).

Yet CBS didn’t bother to point this out, which undoubtedly led hundreds of business leaders to contact their IT departments to make sure employees didn’t have access to these sites.

CBS also didn’t explain why they were reporting now on a study USA Today reported back on May 18.

There are issues with the study as well, which reports that the hour spent each day on distractions accounts for “$10,375 of wasted productivity per person annually,” which translates to $10 million per year for a 1,000-employee company.

Which is hogwash.

After all, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Nonfarm business sector labor productivity increased at a 1.8 percent annual rate during the first quarter of 2011…The gain in productivity reflects increases of 3.2 percent in output and 1.4 percent in hours worked.

It’s a bit disingenuous to claim declining productivity in the face of evidence that American worker productivity continues to rise.

The study also doesn’t bother to acknowledge that most employees don’t put in a traditional eight-hour day. In the U.S., according to a UN study, 85.8 percent of men and 66.5 percent of women work more than 40 hours per week. A 2006 study from Lexmark found that knowledge workers as a whole put in an average of five hours per week in excess of what the job requires, and well over half take work home with them. I’d bet real money that those numbers have increased in the intervening half-decade.

Simply put, you can’t claim lost productivity based on time spent on distractions without accounting for the total number of hours worked both at home and away. This study did nothing of the sort. Most don’t.

But the study goes even further when it claims that distractions by email, phone calls and chats with colleagues result in lost productivity. Really? Even if those calls and chats are work-related? Even if they result in accomplishment of tasks and achievement of business goals? The study made no effort to distinguish what percentage of those distractions were work-related.

Even worse, the top method companies have implemented to address these distractions is blocking of access to social networks (48%), even though social networking doesn’t come anywhere near email as the top source of distraction. Nowhere does the study try to determine if any of those online social activities bring any benefit to the employer (such as recruiting or brand ambassadorship).

It’s sad that the study presents so much distorted information, since some of the findings can be genuinely useful. For example, two-thirds of workers interrupt group meetings to communicate with someone else, mostly by email or answering a cell phone call (together these account for 83% of in-meeting interruptions). The study also attempts to quantify the impact of distractions, which include difficulty focusing on work, lack of time for deep or creative thinking and missed deadlines.

But as long as companies continue to use back-of-the-envelope calculations to heighten unreasonable fear of social networking, and media outlets like CBS Radio News continue to spotlight the sensational rather than the factual, companies will continue to dismiss the benefits of employee social networking and implement policies that can be worse than the problems they’re designed to fix.

Cross-posted to Holtz Communication + Technology