Is Social Media the New Work-Life?

Despite my increasingly active participation in the blogosphere, I'm still somewhere on the novice end of the social media spectrum so I was happy to find that last week's "Women's Leadership Summit on the Business of Social Media," sponsored by Working Mother Media and the National Association for Female Executives, was jam-packed with useful information. It's not often that I find myself spending long minutes wavering about which conference break-out to attend, because I want so very much to be at both.

But as I furiously took notes -- by hand, as the keyboard for my iPad turned out not to be charged -- and in between fussing with my iPhone because I couldn't get it to recognize the local network -- I began to notice a curious thing. This new world of social-media-in-business is surprisingly reminiscent of the slightly more mature world of work-life integration. Since it's still National Work and Family Month for a few more days, I thought I'd tick off just a few of the parallels that occurred to me as the day wore on:

  • By definition, recognizing and supporting the fact that employees have interests, responsibilities and commitments outside the job is a basic requirement for creating a family-friendly culture.

Similarly, accepting social media into the workplace as a means of communication, both among employees and between employees and customers, means not only accepting but celebrating employees as whole human beings, who don't check their private lives at the door. You can't confine all talk on blogs and social networks to business, and you wouldn't want to. Why? Because allowing employees to be themselves -- to talk not only about a thorny business problem but about last night's football game -- humanizes and improves their relationship with customers and with each other. It seems like quite a few of the business benefits -- the ROI -- of social media come from collaborating and building relationships -- bringing one's whole self to this process adds a tremendous business boost.

  • For more than thirty years now, misguided senior leaders have resisted introducing work-life tools such as time and place flexibility for fear that they would "open the floodgates." Surely, if one person were allowed to come in late or work from home, everybody would want to! Not only has this fear proved to be completely unfounded, but in some enlightened workplaces leaders are struggling to incorporate more such flexibility into the culture; freedom to "flex" turns out to have business advantages they never dreamed of.
  • Well, guess what? It turns out leaders are afraid of social media for very similar, equally erroneous reasons. They're afraid everyone will be hanging out chatting with each other, playing video games or posting wild pictures from last weekend's party. Worse, they fear social networks and comment boards will become forums for negativity. Yet those leaders who have let social media into their organizations have learned that employees (who, after all, they trust to act professionally in face-to-face encounters) are thoroughly trustworthy when it comes to their interactions -- and time spent -- online. Not only that, but social media has enhanced collaboration, provided for rapid, widespread adoption of smart business ideas, promoted opportunities for career development that benefit not just the employee but the organization, and more. As for the worry about negativity, Clarissa Felts, Lowe's VP for Collaboration, Diversity & Inclusion, put it this way: "Social media doesn't change culture, it reveals it." Put another way, if employees have negative things to say, trust me, they're already saying them. Wouldn't most leaders rather be in a position to "hear" what's being said?

  • Finally, by now most companies have accepted not only that families no longer come with stay-at-home spouses, but that half the available talent pool has no Y chromosome. As a result, they know that allowing for work-life integration is not a matter of being nice, it's a business imperative.
  • Bringing social media into the workplace is, similarly, no longer a choice. Whatever you may think of it, social media is with us now -- you can either be in control of the message it's sending or let the message control you. And just as in the early days of work-life, senior leaders of one generation are learning this lesson from a younger generation, either at home or at work. At least one company, Prudential Financial, even introduced reverse mentoring, drafting twenty-something-aged employees to explain the ins and outs of social media to denizens of the C-Suite.

    These, as I said, were just a few of the parallels I found. It would be interesting to dig deeper and see what role, if any, the whole work-life movement has had on creating corporate cultures that can more easily adapt themselves to the world of social media. One thing is clear, though: related or not, both the work-life and social media movements will continue to have a dramatic effect on our lives and the way we work.