Bringing social media to work

Serena Software CEO Jeremy Burton says companies should not fear or ban social networking sites, and shares his objectives behind "Facebook Fridays".

perspective Let's be honest: Business has never been all  business.

Companies are made up of people, and people talk. They also have lives, and interests, and fun, and friends--even friends they meet at work or through other business or professional interactions. Pretending that your employees are robots has never been a winning human resources strategy.

Companies have always known that socializing is good for business. That's why they're willing to shell out considerable cash on corporate retreats, golf outings, association memberships, and conferences. (Admit it: Why do you really  go to conferences? Is it the panel sessions or the hospitality suites?) It's not just networking, prospecting, and ladder-climbing--it's simple human bonding.

That's why it makes no sense to fear Facebook, Twitter, or other social-media services. Furthermore, banning these services from your workplace only causes friction and closes off important business options.

For most people, the human drive to connect and share is stronger than the duty to spend every possible moment "being productive". No matter what, people will  find ways to socialize and share during work hours. It might be best to treat this like sex education: If your employees are going to "do it" anyway, why not encourage them to channel their social-media impulses in smart, safe ways that can potentially help your business?

It might be best to treat this like sex education.

Today, life and work overlap more than ever before. Technology is making that overlap more seamless. To thrive in this environment, the key is to embrace the trend toward "24/7 work-life" and temper it with basic common sense. This is especially true if you wish to recruit and keep the most talented and creative staff, or to strengthen and grow relationships with your customers, suppliers and partners.

Here are a couple of practical ways that your employees could help your business via social media:

  1. Gain trust. Everyone hates interacting with a "faceless company". Employees with active Facebook pages or extensive Flickr galleries seem much more approachable and engaging. In fact, if your customers indicate a strong preference for a certain social media service, it might make sense to give your company a semi-official presence there, run by real humans, for informal customer service and true "public relations".
  2. Improve R&D. Social media provides ample insight into people's lives, concerns, frustrations, and wants. Ask your employees to volunteer useful information about trends--not to inform on individuals, but rather provide general context that might help your company enhance its offerings or operations.

Of course, your lawyers and managers will have valid concerns that given the chances, employees might use social media to waste time, leak proprietary information, air dirty laundry, perpetrate libel and slander, and just plain act stupid or embarrassing.

I'm not saying these problems never happen. But don't blow them out of proportion, and always try to influence behavior with positive examples and reinforcement.

For instance, at Serena Software, we've decided to help our employees constructively channel their social media time with "Facebook Fridays". As of Nov. 2, every Friday, our more than 800 employees in 18 countries will have an hour of personal time specifically for participating in Facebook--building profiles, playing with applications, and connecting with coworkers, customers, family, and friends. In effect, we're making Facebook our company's intranet.

Executives in the corner office used to think an "open door policy" and the occasional e-mail to staff was good enough. I remember that it surely didn't stop me from getting clammy palms when I was stuck in the elevator with the CEO.

But today, at least I know that all Serena employees can simply log in online to learn more about me, such as my favorite teams, where I went on vacation, or how I did that weekend in racing. The modern CEO understands the blurred line between work and home, and uses it to his or her advantage.

It may be tempting for busy executives to sidestep the social media issue with a blanket "Thou shalt not". However, that approach leaves employees with zero constructive options--and probably a good deal of resentment. Not good, especially online.

The bottom line is: You can't really keep your employees away from social media. They're going to do it anyway, even at work. If you don't give them options to participate in social media on terms friendly to your company, you're asking for trouble.

So start talking to your employees about this. Find out who's interested in helping you experiment. Capitalize on their energy. And don't forget to "friend" them.

Jeremy Burton is the president and CEO of Serena Software.