Social media at work: a psychologist’s view on employee disengagement

The explosion of social media in recent years represents a technological shift that seems to be moving at a rate faster than society’s capacity to deal with it. Social media usage can have vast implications in the workplace, for both personal and company brands. 

Similarly, the number of hours spent on social media can have an impact on productivity. Therefore the introduction of robust company policy regarding social media use by employees is paramount for a good workplace environment.

A total ban of social media in the workplace does not necessarily represent an effective strategy nor is it entirely positive. So how do we curb our enthusiasm?


Why doesn’t a total ban work?

As many of our readers who have children (or anyone who has walked into a supermarket) will know, a child denied a toy usually produce a reactionary tantrum. Similarly, when denied social media, employees may crave being connected and updated through their social media profiles. Amongst other reasons, the most simple explanation is that the brain is hardwired to desire the unattainable. 


Information Gap Theory

George Loewenstein explains the behaviour as part of the phenomenon known as “Information-Gap” Theory. The “gap” in information generated from a given information source builds curiosity, which may only be satisfied by attaining that information. Once the information is attained, the associated dopamine rush reinforces the behaviour, creating a cycle of information gaps to make us constantly crave information. 

Social media is very addictive precisely due to this information gap. 

Completely banning social media generally leads to employees using their devices to fill that information gap. Not only is this just as unproductive, but it can lead to employees using social media as a reward mechanism while at work.


Is social media always a negative contributor to the workplace?

Absolutely not! 

Social media can have many advantages in the workplace. When done correctly, social media can form a strong part of an organisations’ communication strategy. In fact, internal applications such as Slack and Yammer help employees communicate with one another as well as the organisation as a whole. 

In a way, this is a form of social media. Sure, it doesn’t come with the targeted advertisements, gif messages or cat videos, but it still retains the core function of bringing an organisation closer together. 


A symptom, not the cause of the problem

Social media use is only one potential workplace distraction. Employees may engage in many other tactics to avoid doing work. Everything from coffee breaks to idle water cooler chatter can be used to avoid doing work. If this is the case, what is the real problem?

The real problem is avoidance.

Avoidance happens when employees are disengaged, not seeing the benefit their work is doing or the impact they may have in the workplace. Productivity historically doesn’t improve a great deal through social media bans, and if it does improve it generally creates a downstream problem somewhere else, such as employee retention.

As long as you can keep employees engaged, you can build a workplace environment that is less likely to avoid the work. Engagement combats avoidance, and in doing so creates a healthy workplace where you can go on social media if you want to, but the work is a better option. 

That’s how winning teams are built.

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  1. Kidd C, Hayden BY. The psychology and neuroscience of curiosity. Neuron. 2015;88(3):449-60.