Social networks could harm your productivity

Friends at work are important to your productivity

Friends at work are important to your productivity

Friends are hugely important to you in the workplace. Research has consistently demonstrated that when you have friends at work, you perform better. If you go to work and don’t have any friends who work with you, or if you don’t really get on with those around you, your morale drops and so does your productivity. Occupational psychologists have known for ages that friendly workplaces outperform more “straight laced” environments.

However, research from the University of Florida has added a new twist to this knowledge – and it has implications for anyone who uses online social networks. According to this new study, friendships only help our productivity at work if our friends are physically close to us. When our friends are in another department, workplace productivity actually goes down. Similarly, the study found that if workplace friends do not do the same kind of work as each other, morale and productivity also fall, even if the friends work together in the same department.

The study implies that friendship contributes to work productivity only if friends are physically close to each other and do the same kind of tasks. But, the study also showed that if those friendships become too close, if there are high levels of empathy between staff, productivity also falls. In other words, we need to be close to our friends, but if we are to work well we mustn’t be too friendly.

So, head over towards the world of social networking and take a look at what is going on. Distributed teams in large organisations are using services like forums, Facebook or Twitter in order to stay connected, to help maintain their friendships. Similarly in the world of self-employment, people are using these networks in order to – seemingly – maintain friendships and support. Considerable degrees of empathy are being shown on Twitter for instance, with messages as simple as “Well done” or “Fantastic news”. All of this from colleagues and friends who are geographically distant.

It is possible therefore that Twitter and Facebook are reducing workplace productivity – not because of their potential time-wasting nature – but due to their impact on the way we perceive and use friendships in the workplace. Indeed, this feature may also explain why companies who use distributed teams have to put in place considerable efforts in order to make them work. Having an international workforce is a great idea in these global times, but as any worldwide company will tell you, systems have to be put in place and used rigorously in order to make it all work.

Instead, what this new research shows, is that if you put your global team all in the same physical space, there’s a likelihood that productivity would increase. International firms are desperate for every last piece of technology which will “bring teams closer together” and don’t see the obvious failing in their logic. Technology does not actually bring friends together; but locating them in the same physical space does.

Interestingly, one of the principal uses of Facebook – indeed part of its raison d’etre – is to arrange physical, face-to-face meetings. At its heart is the notion that people – especially friends – want to be with each other in the real, physical world. A recent study showed that online gamers tended to play with competitors who were physically close, rather than someone on the other side of the planet. These gamers know each other in the physical world and then play together online.

This new study just adds to this research to confirm the power of physical closeness. At work it helps increase productivity, in the world of gaming it helps us know who we are playing with more easily.

Which all goes to suggest that online social networking – in spite of its huge power and impact on business – may well be having a hidden side effect. It may be reducing productivity because it helps us be distant to our friends. The likes of Twitter could be giving us an illusion of friendship and empathy, which physical closeness does not.

Take a look at your own use of Twitter and Facebook. The chances are, most of your Tweets and messages are between you and people who are geographically close to you, or people you know in the real, physical world. It should act as a reminder that being with real people in the real world is what motivates you most. Social networks are fantastic tools – but they are no replacement for being with your friends in the real world. Using social networks to arrange physical meetings could be one of the best things you do – it will boost your relationships and, according to this new research, help boost your workplace productivity.

2 thoughts on “Social networks could harm your productivity”

  1. You obviously haven't heard Jason Fried's talk on productivity (polar opposite of your thought here) at TEDTalks of October 2010. Though I don't think his is backed up by a research similar to that of the University of Florida, personally it's applicable to me.

  2. I have heard the talk – I just disagree. The research is pretty conclusive and points in the opposite direction to the talk. Indeed, much of the research on online social networks shows that we mostly use them to extend existing, real world, physically close relationships.

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