Does Facebook even belong in the enterprise?

Does Facebook even belong in the enterprise?

Sure, it may seem like your staff is spending far too much time checking their news feed, or ‘liking’ viral videos. But, beyond the privacy concerns, security risks and productivity issues, there are good reasons to allow Facebook in the office. Right?

The baby pictures keep popping up. Your neighbor obviously just got back from a duck-hunting trip. And, your sister just announced her wedding plans for next summer.

Congratulations, you just spent 30 minutes on Facebook.

As many executives grapple with how much the social network has become engrained in society – the site boasts 1.44B active users monthly – there’s a question about whether the brainchild of Mark Zuckerberg even belongs in the enterprise at all, even as the company prepares to launch a version of Facebook geared specifically toward work-centric networking and collaboration.

As several experts tell, it’s becoming a security problem as employees reveal private business information and click on links that contain malware. It’s a major distraction from completing actual projects while in the office, mostly due to how easy it is to get lost on the platform playing games, chatting in groups and looking for used deck furniture.

Fortunately, there are a few strategies to help tame the gorilla, even if the answers are a mix of best practices, employee training and apps that control usage and reduce risks.

Privacy concerns

As with any magnetic attraction in technology, there are always privacy concerns due to the high number of users and high level of interest. It’s all too easy to view the network as a way to meet and interact with employees from other firms – not to mention fostering deeper relationships who work at the same company – but it’s also easy to casually divulge corporate secrets.

[Related: How to craft an effective social media policy]

Part of the solution is in training employees on the proper work-related use of Facebook, says Sharon Geltner, a certified business analyst within the Small Business Development Center at Palm Beach State College. The social network provides a fertile ground for “environmental scanning” (a new term that means looking for business opportunities). It's a way to replace the consumer use of Facebook, such as chatting or browsing through photos, with something more valuable to business. Employees who see Facebook as a tool for work are less likely to reveal company information or browse mindlessly and waste time, she says.

“Consider giving a perk, maybe a better parking space, for the employee who finds the most interesting intelligence on Facebook,” says Geltner. “The CIO can’t shut off the firehose. But the wise one tries to make employees feel like part of the team and welcome valuable information.”

Security issues

Checking Facebook has become a daily ritual for many users, whether they’re at work or not. That means, if your security team suggests blocking the site entirely to prevent malware infestations, you’ll find that employees just switch to checking it on their own laptop or phone.

Security becomes a problem when employees click links that take them to disreputable sites and they end up downloading malware. Fortunately, there are some technology-related solutions that can help mitigate these attacks. One tool, called SocialWare, is designed for risk management and compliance. It has features that allow admins to enable or disable features within Facebook. It tracks usage, so admins know if an employee has clicked a harmful link.

Bruce Milne, the executive vice president at SocialWare, says that it’s a smart strategy to split employees into groups and determine which features they actual need.

“Some may need research capabilities, some may be working on customer service and others may be leveraging their Facebook networks for lead generation,” he says, explaining that there’s a way to disable the “like” button or prevent employees from making comments or posting original articles, which can curb some privacy and security-related problems.

Productivity problems

Most of the experts who expressed concern about employees using Facebook in the enterprise said there is a growing problem related to productivity. It’s just too tempting to login and chat with your buddy across town or browse through your daughter’s vacation photos.

Outright bans don’t work, says Bill Fish, president of Employees feel as though they are being treated like children, he says. It’s become nearly impossible to restrict access, especially with an emerging trend of smaller companies skipping a Web domain altogether and using Facebook instead, and with a growing number of private groups on Facebook designed for professionals to exchange ideas and articles.

[Related: 7 staggering social media use by-the-minute stats]

“The last thing you want to do as a manager is hinder your employees from doing their job. As long as some general rules are laid out in terms of using the platform, you should respect and trust your staff enough to handle themselves in a professional manner,” Fish says.

Business consultant Michelle Seiler-Tucker agrees that it’s impossible to ban Facebook. About 20 percent of the world population now uses it, she says. Yet, the social network is seriously hurting productivity in the enterprise. The issue is that employees tend to switch constantly between work and Facebook, or they find more social engagement with the network than the work they are supposed to be doing on the clock.

Facebook fixes

None of the experts suggested banning Facebook. There are benefits in business, not least of which is connecting with colleagues within your own company. Facebook has become a marketing platform, an intelligence-sharing tool and a way to get some legitimate relief from work itself.

“Sitting at a desk all day isn’t an easy task,” says Fish. “Every so often your brain needs a break from looking through spreadsheets. If this means that for five minutes an hour, a member of your team is looking at photos of her friend’s cat on Facebook, it isn’t the end of the world. It gives them an outlet to recharge their brain and get back to the tasks at hand.”

Seiler-Tucker says employees need to know the company owns the workstation they’re using. Facebook tracks usage and archives data. That means a comment about your business plans will be stored on a private server for years. Employees should be allowed to take breaks and check Facebook – she says research shows taking a break every two hours during the day actually improves productivity – but it should be viewed mostly as a break, not work.

“Nothing is worse than calling a business, or going into a brick and mortar store, and finding a cold, uninterested employee,” says Seiler-Tucker. “If you have employees who don’t give customers the attention they deserve because they want to get back to scrolling through Facebook, it's time to have a serious conversation with your hires.”

In the end, Facebook is here to stay. Smart business leaders will see it as an opportunity for more social connection at work, a way to find business opportunities and a way to give employees a break for their routine. It can be a tool for good, even if that “good” can quickly unravel and become a time-waster or a conduit for security risks. As with most things, educating employees is key.

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