It’s true that social technology in the workplace has the potential to raise productivity by 20-25%. It’s also true that enterprise social networks and similar tools are becoming more widely accepted, and even invested in, by major companies. With telecommuting becoming more popular and the globalized workplace a reality to which all businesses will have to conform sooner or later, the rise of enterprise social networks should surprise no one.

Communications are taking on a central role and facing new challenges in a world where office workers no longer necessarily see each other face to face every day. We must empower employees to collaborate powerfully in this new global climate, which is not only expanding geographically but moving at a quicker pace each day.

After all, good communication is only a stepping stone to great collaboration, and both are necessary to support larger organizational goals.

Enterprise social networks: the holy grail?

But are enterprise social networks enough? Can they be a silver bullet, creating awesome communication and collaboration wherever they are implemented? Do enterprise social networks alone support your company’s bottom line?

The answer is no, they do not. Enterprise social networks can be a piece of the collaborative puzzle, but in order to function properly and support company goals, they need to work in conjunction with other types of collaborative tools; such as document management and project management systems. In fact, research shows employee uptake and preference leans towards collaboration platforms such as intranets, rather than ESNs – due to the range of functionality and tasks they support.

esns graph intranet

Even more importantly, all of those digital tools need to be deployed strategically, with specific goals in mind and metrics to measure how well they achieved their purpose. Without that, the benefits of enterprise social networks cannot be realized.

In fact, when implemented carelessly, enterprise social networks can actually harm worker productivity.

Are your ESNs damaging your productivity?

There are a number of ways in which social tools can hurt productivity – which is why your company must first consider its own corporate culture and goals. Here are 6 ways social networks could be damaging your productivity.

1. They create a culture that encourages being “always on”

Collaboration can be an invaluable tool, connecting a person with one set of skills to someone else with a different set and enabling the two of them to finish projects together with impressive results – or simply helping spread the burden of large projects so that the majority of the work doesn’t fall on a single individual.

However, there are also instances in which companies push “collaboration for collaboration’s sake,” asking employees to be available on multiple social tools (whereas it was once only email) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The thought is that pushing employees to connect over these social networks will enhance the benefits of collaboration.

In fact, it forces them to be in the workplace mindset when they should be recharging their batteries. Even in the office, pressure to collaborate may push employees to extra tasks when they already feel the pressures of their regular, every day jobs.

This pressure has dire consequences. It’s widely accepted that too much stress is bad for overall health and can have long term health consequences. As it turns out, it harms productivity as well. According to the annual Global Benefit Attitudes survey by Towers Watson, employees experiencing stress and financial worries are significantly less healthy and significantly less productive.

Pushing employees to collaborate instead of simply making tools available and facilitating them not only makes them less healthy, but negatively affects your company goals and bottom line.

2. They cause employees to focus on tasks other than work

Enterprise social networks can provide workers with tools to be more productive and achieve impressive goals. Unfortunately, they also provide something for employees to focus on that isn’t related directly to their job description.

Another word for this phenomenon? Distraction. In other words, for all the hype that enterprise social networks don’t distract employees and have the power to boost productivity, it’s hard to escape the fact that no one’s job is to go on social media at work (unless they’re a social media marketer) – yet that’s exactly what they’re being asked to do.

According to the technology research and strategy organization Altimeter, only 25% of enterprise social networks in use have employees regularly utilizing them. This is in contrast to 36% of more inclusive collaboration platforms, such as intranets. The reason is likely that when employees are at work, they want to actually do their jobs.

According to another study, it takes an average of 23 minutes, 15 seconds to refocus once a person has been distracted from a task they’re performing. That’s a huge chunk out of an 8 hour work day, especially if those 23 minutes and 15 seconds come multiple times every day!

If employees are pushed to use a social tool and it turns out to be a distraction instead of a helpful collaboration tool, it isn’t fulfilling its purpose – and may in fact be removing a large portion of their productive hours.

esns social media intranet

3. They add extra steps to otherwise simple tasks

The best digital business tools reduce the number of steps an employee has to take in order to complete the tasks that make up their day to day jobs. Digital and social tools that aren’t correctly used, however, add to the number of steps an employee must go through. This is often because all the old systems are still in place; when another is added, it doesn’t replace any inefficiencies the organization had before.

One common example of this is when companies install software that boasts its ability to reduce email volume, but the company keeps its email system intact. Communications are duplicated or tasks are assigned using both the new tool and email. Employees must now respond using both media, lest they appear to be ignoring a communication from their manager.

In reality, no efficiency has been added in these situations. On the contrary, time has been taken away from that employee that they needed to do their job and support organizational goals. Add to this the time it takes to refocus after a distraction (doubled or even tripled from the use of new systems!), and it’s easy to see how enterprise social networks could potentially harm overall productivity levels.

4. They push employees to collaborate on tasks that don’t call for it

Collaboration isn’t always the answer. Yes, it has many uses – when an employee is missing knowledge that is essential to their job but has access to another person in their organization who has that missing knowledge or skillset, collaboration will enable success. Some tasks, however, are best completed on one’s own. This is what’s known as the “too many cooks in the kitchen” phenomenon.

For any given project, there are bound to be many parties who either have a stake in its completion or are simply interested in giving their feedback. Receiving feedback from many sources at once makes it extremely difficult for a person to do their job well or quickly. They must sort through all the comments, reconcile the ones that contradict each other, and make sure their final product can satisfy all parties. This doesn’t take into account projects where multiple people are working on them before they even reach the feedback stage.

In contrast to the situation mentioned above where an employee might need the expertise of another person in the organization, what about the employee who has all the knowledge they need? What if that employee isn’t pressed for time and doesn’t need the support from other members of their team?

According to a recent survey, 86% of people feel most productive when they work alone. Enterprise social networks add many new points of connection for each task in a person’s day to become a collaborative effort. In many cases this goes beyond supplying tools for workers to use as needed and forces them to collaborate when they’d be able to easily accomplish a task on their own. In the case of a larger project, this can add not just minutes or hours but days onto the time it takes to complete a task. Talk about a burden on productivity!

5. They force people to multitask

Using an enterprise social network inherently forces a person to multitask. The idea behind them is that they become a part of an employee’s day to day life, folding themselves into every task that employee performs. That’s why they supposedly raise productivity. They are tools that help complete work quickly and effectively. Supposedly.

In fact, participating in an enterprise social network constitutes a series of tasks in and of itself. Because of that, using one means that employee is trying to concentrate on both the social tool and their task at hand.

A study from 2013 found that high cognitive load negatively affects a person’s performance, while another study demonstrated that forcing the brain to focus on many things at once causes bottlenecks that result in lost information and reduced decision making ability. Regardless of the positive intention of collaborating on an enterprise social network, multitasking harms productivity. There’s no way around that fact, neurologically speaking.

6. They act as a communications crutch

For all that’s been said about the dangers of over communicating and over collaborating, it’s no secret that communication and collaboration both are a necessary ingredient to any company’s success. Without them, productivity would be astronomically lower. It’s important to reiterate that enterprise social networks can’t be considered a silver bullet to this problem.

Often, when companies introduce them, they’re used as a crutch. The idea is that just by deploying social tools, communication and collaboration will skyrocket. However, it’s the people using the tools and the overarching company culture that make social tools useful.

Before implementing them, companies need to carefully consider a strategy, including the goals they expect social tools to help accomplish and the metrics to be used in measuring their effectiveness. Enterprise social networks on their own are not enough, but with the right planning and effort, they can be a boon to productivity.

Is it time to throw out our Enterprise Social Network?

Despite the arguable disadvantages of enterprise social networks, they continue to hold a place in the office – and are growing in popularity. Ultimately in order to serve their true purpose, ESNs must be strategically deployed and monitored. Before pulling the plug, it’s worth performing a ‘health check’ on your own:

  • Does our ESN integrate or complement our existing business tools and processes – for example, connecting to our cloud storage provider or collaboration platforms?
  • Is engagement with the platform business-wide or are there silos of adopters and shirkers? Do those individuals require more training and support, or do they have an alternative preference?
  • Does our ESN hinder or help with collaborative processes? Is use a streamlined and efficient process, or do we need to remove some of the unnecessary stages or steps?
  • Do we have usage best practice guidelines to govern out-of-hours communications or potential productivity-damaging distractions?

An enterprise social network is just one piece of the digital workplace puzzle – and rarely an all-encompassing collaboration or communication tool. Rather, they can serve as a valuable addition to your existing platforms and processes. Stop viewing your ESN as the workplace answer to Twitter or Facebook: by removing focus from the ‘social’ element and regarding your ESN as a link or connector between your collaboration and communication tools, you can realise its true value.