Online Social Networking: Is It a Productivity Bust or Boon?

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I recently had an article on Faceblocking published in the March 2009 issue of Law Practice magazine: Online Social Networking: Is It a Productivity Bust or Boon for Law Firms?

Steve Matthews and I conducted an informal poll to see if we could confirm that law firms were blocking access to social networking sites. Our theory was proven in the results. (You can download the raw survey data (.xls) if you want to see the underlying data.)

Of those responding to the survey, 45% said their firms blocked access to social networking sites. The three most blocked sites: Facebook, MySpace and YouTube. Those are also 3 of the top 10 most visited sites on the web. We also published some of written comments from the survey respondents: Speaking Out on Social Networking.

The survey is very unscientific. Steve and I thought that it would be useful to get some data about what law firms are doing about access to social networking sites. I was surprised that 45% of firms blocked access to some social networking sites. Perhaps those working at firms subject to blocking were more likely to respond to the survey. I was also surprised that the 45% blocking percentage was fairly consistent across firm size. So small law firms were just as likely to block access as big firms.

I conducted two surveys of the summer associates at my old law firm, the vast majority went to Facebook at least once a day. It seems to me that if you are recruiting young workers, you should not cut off one of the ways they communicate. Deacons published a survey indicating that an employer’s policy regarding on-line social networking would influence a significant percentage of workers’ decision to join one employer over another.

Although I am an advocate of open access, I do so with the caveat that you need to let the people in your organization know what is proper use and to monitor their compliance. I fear that many firms use blockage as their policy. That may have worked 10 years ago, but not today. You can just as easily access these sites from iPhone or blackberry as you can from a firm computer. Blocking does not stop the bad behavior that it is trying to prevent. Blocking merely changes the access method.

There is a fair amount of research, the most prominent of which are two reports from McKinsey, showing that access to social networks at work, coupled with a good policy results in a more engaged, more motivated and potentially more innovative workplace. You should set sensible policies and set reasonable expectations for your employees. Social networking sites at their core are communications platform. You should be able to adapt your policies on email, confidentiality, marketing and similar policies to easily include social networking sites. If not, those other policies probably need updating anyhow.

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