Social Media and the Workplace: Bringing a Virtual Water Cooler to Telecommuters

telecommuter using social media in the workplace

This is the fourth post in VC Daily’s telecommuting series. Read the first, second, and third posts.

If the boss knew how much time you spent checking social media during your working day you’d be in trouble, right?

The truth is, he or she probably already knows. It has been widely reported that the average person spends about two hours a day on social media, and being in the office doesn’t slow us down. But what if this social media use was seen as a positive? According to research, the most common reason employees have for going online is to take a mental break. However, almost 20% of workers say they use social media to get information that helps them do their job, or to learn about and build relationships with their colleagues.

If you’re a telecommuter working remotely outside the office, for instance, those kinds of social media uses could be very helpful in building team chemistry and developing a strong working culture within a company. In that light, social media and the workplace aren’t a bad combination. In fact, social media could add a stronger social element to the telecommuting work environment.

The Telecommuting Rollercoaster

Telecommuting has endured a bit of a rollercoaster ride of approval over the past decade or so. Buoyed by research that insisted remote or work-from-home employees were cheaper, more loyal, and more productive than in-office staff, the concept won enthusiastic support from companies as large as IBM.

Then, executives like former Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer began to worry remote employees weren’t getting the benefit of random meetings with colleagues around the water cooler, and were thus missing out on valuable, spontaneous explosions of ideas. Mayer started to recall the company’s telecommuters, and within a week of her decision, other big names like Best Buy followed suit.

Those high-profile recalls, including IBM’s at the start of this year, got the headlines, but telecommuting continued to grow nonetheless. Telecommuting has increased by more than 100% in the last ten years, and In the years immediately following Mayer’s announcement in 2013, many more companies in this country made remote work available to employees.

If the recent backlash against telecommuting is partly due to the way it suppresses casual interaction, then some companies have found a cultural solution by embracing social media and the virtual water cooler.

Target’s Virtual Staff Room

Retail giant Target, which employs more than 400,000 people in the U.S., has long used its own in-house version of social media to maintain a conversation among employees scattered across the country. Since the turn of the last decade, the company has maintained a Facebook-like internal platform that lets employees post comments and follow and respond to each other. It also started an internal social media site called RedTalk that lets users gather in groups to share work- and non-work-related information.

Internet hosting service Github has developed a similar internal communication device, this one modeled on Pinterest. The company hosts a common page within its network where staff members around the world can write about their personal and professional achievements, and colleagues can post pictures of themselves toasting their peers’ success.

Both these initiatives were designed to bring together employees in the distributed offices of an enormous company, rather than to accommodate a remote workforce. But the concept of mimicking and internalizing social media to bond a disparate workforce can easily be adapted for virtual teams.

Social Media and the Workplace

The one element that should be added to the Target and Github examples is live video. Telecommuting largely depends on video calling to establish face-to-face communications between colleagues, so it’s only logical that the tech should be extended into the social realm. The most accessible staging ground for a video gathering is a group video chat room.

Most major companies will have the IT resources to develop their own internal chat rooms, perhaps borrowing from the DIY principles of browser-based video calling. This technology uses the built-in video calling tools of participating web browsers, such as Google Chrome, to create account-free WebRTC video chat rooms that an experienced web designer can put together with just a few lines of code.

Smaller companies might have to make do with existing video conferencing sites, but there’s been an explosion of them recently, resulting in plenty of choices. These apps can handle dozens of simultaneous video calls and act as a virtual staff room. Facebook Messenger, for example, can accommodate up to 50 callers and offers links across the spectrum of Facebook features.

By giving each employee access to a common group forum, whether they’re located on-site or remotely, even large groups can gather online and chew the fat. If the majority of workplace social media users are just looking for a mental break, encourage them to drop into the virtual forum and chat with their colleagues. If they’re looking for professional support, let them lean on their digital peers.

Rethinking our attitudes to social media in the workplace–and bending their connected networks to professional ends–can keep downtime at least a little work-related, and give telecommuting the more natural, random social dynamic that Marissa Mayer was after.

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