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Social media and managing performance

Social media can affect how staff do their work and where they do it. This can bring challenges for employers in how they supervise employees' work flow, accomplishments, output and problems.

Key points

  • Productivity, the pros - Better work-life balance: By managing the person as well as the employee, and being aware of issues at home and work, organisations can get more flexibility from the hours and the way employees function to help meet business needs. Also, in agreeing any flexibility arrangements with the employer, an employee can accommodate personal needs more easily.

    For example, a manager who works in PR might agree an arrangement with their employer where they take off an extra hour at lunchtime twice a week to help as a carer for an elderly relative. They then make up the time in the evening, working on their employer's social media account.
  • Productivity, the cons - Time theft: Employers may be concerned that some employees spend too long using company computers for personal reasons such as sending emails to friends, updating social network accounts, or browsing and shopping online.

    In these circumstances, productivity can be badly affected. This is a problem which can be difficult for line managers to spot, as employees can switch quickly on screen between their work and personal use of social media. Another complication can be that as well as using their work computer, an employee might also use their work or personal smart phone.

    However, IT specialists can monitor employees' time spent online on work equipment, or block access on a work computer to certain sites.
  • Monitoring: For employers, while keeping an eye on employees' use of social media might be helpful in maintaining standards, it can cause bad feeling among staff and be time consuming for managers.

    Additionally, employees may be unaware that some forms of social networking, such as on smart phones, can inadvertently provide a form of monitoring - for example, by revealing the user's location.
  • Work organisation: The use of social media often blurs the distinction between work and personal life, with many employees available at home and while travelling. This has led some employers to put more emphasis on managing the tasks an employee performs rather than managing the time they work.

    Also, although knowledge sharing often leads to a greater centralisation of information resources, employees can get more freedom in the way they manage their workloads.
  • Communication, the pros - Quicker: A line manager, their staff and colleagues can use tweets, smart phones, emails, internal message boards and professional networking sites to keep in touch and exchange information almost instantly. In addition, phone conversations can maintain the personal touch.
  • Communication, the cons - Less face-to-face contact: There can be times when electronic communication can be less subtle and effective than talking face to face with an employee. A line manager on the phone or online may not be able to pick up on other signals to get to the root of a concern - for example, if the manager is emailing an employee about their sickness absence.
  • Health and safety: Some employees use personal social networking as a way of switching off from work rather than having regulated breaks away from IT equipment.
  • Addiction: The use of social media can become addictive to varying degrees - from constantly checking work emails, often at home, through to deeper personal problems such as online gambling. Where there is a serious problem, an employer may need to encourage an employee to seek specialist help.

The way forward

  • Develop a policy on the use of social media at work: Every organisation will have different rules. Some may ban personal use of the internet altogether, while others may allow 'reasonable use' at the discretion of a line manager.

    It may be helpful to set some guidelines - for example, personal use of social media is permitted during tea breaks and lunchtime. An employer should consult its employee or trade union representatives when drawing up a policy (see the guide on Social media and how to develop a policy). Also, it should be aware that this is a rapidly changing area and policies may have to be updated regularly.
  • Educate employees: Although many people's social and domestic lives revolve around the use of social media - everything from booking concert tickets to paying bills - this does not constitute having a break from work computer screens (many organisations recommend 10 minutes away from a screen for every hour worked). The Health and Safety Executive has guidance on the risks of using VDU and IT equipment, which all employees could be encouraged to look at. 
  • Give line managers guidelines on remote/homeworking: Use of social media is allowing many employees to work away from an organisation's base, with their employer's agreement. This can pose unique challenges for performance management.

    Common sense suggests that managers will often focus on end-products rather than managing time too closely. However, the basic rules of effective performance management still apply - for example, holding regular performance reviews and maintaining an ongoing dialogue with all staff.
  • Settling in new staff: An employer should use the first few weeks of employment to establish its acceptable standards of behaviour. Also, it should spell out the risks of using company facilities for personal use, in terms of the impact on productivity and the extra pressure that puts on the team, and any potential disciplinary consequences.
  • Discipline: An employer should make it clear to employees what behaviour will be monitored and what disciplinary sanctions may be triggered - for example, if someone is off sick, but colleagues report seeing pictures online of them out socialising. Research in 2010 for the website job board network My Job Group suggested that misuse of social networking tools costs the UK economy £14 billion annually in lost work time. 

Acas Senior Policy Advisor Adrian Wakeling talks about social media in the workplace.