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The Last Word A Tweet Too Far

September 9, 2010

I grew up in a Midwestern neighborhood where everyone knew everyone. I just had to walk out my front door to find a flock of playmates or some elderly neighbors on their porches eager to chat.

That’s what being connected looked like back in the 1960s. Today, many people say we are more connected than ever through the Internet and social media. In some ways, they’re right. I recently became friends with a professor more than 5,000 miles away in Buenos Aires through LinkedIn, and I have reconnected with high school and college friends on Facebook.

There’s no denying the value and power of social media, which are infiltrating all parts of our lives, including the workplace. In our cover story this month, Susan Ladika explores the pros and cons of the growing phenomenon of corporate social networks. Worried about security and privacy risks if they let social media penetrate their firewalls, more companies are creating internal social networks to enable employees scattered around the globe to interact both professionally and personally.

It’s a wise strategy to attract and retain the Millennial Generation, which prefers to work for tech-savvy companies and will represent 36 percent of the U.S. labor force in less than five years. This, after all, is a generation in which 86 percent use social networking sites and 83 percent sleep with their mobile phones, according to Pew Research Center studies. While older workers view social media as a tool or toy, Millennials feel lost without them. The CEO of a global public relations firm told me that he severed his Internet service to force his daughters off Facebook and back to their schoolbooks.

No doubt, employers will face growing demand from these digital natives for access to social media. Just visit a college campus and you’ll see what I mean. I frequently make presentations at universities and increasingly see how obsessed young people are with their virtual relationships. Students at the Stockholm School of Economics tweeted on Twitter about my speech, while my audience at the University at Buffalo couldn’t resist texting.

Some schools are cracking down on texting, game playing and visiting social networks during class by crafting codes of conduct. Similar strategies may be necessary in the workplace, as well—and not just for Millennials. Other generations, especially baby boomers, are embracing social media more, and they certainly are addicted to staying in touch through e-mails and texts. A friend of mine was amazed—and chagrined—when the woman next to her at a Broadway musical continuously sent texts to her husband sitting a few rows away. And how often have you seen baby boomers and Gen X’ers sneak a peek at a BlackBerry during a meeting?

But the Millennials are testing the limits far more than other generations in both academia and the workplace, raising concerns about their frittering away too much time absorbed in social networks. Not only can social media usage reduce productivity, but it also limits richer, interpersonal exchanges. There’s no replacement for the visual and verbal cues and emotional interplay in a face-to-face encounter. In filling some jobs at Workforce Management this summer, I initially interviewed a few candidates by phone, but I could only truly judge an applicant after we met in person.

Some young people do seem to understand the value of unplugging and communicating directly, at least once in a while. In our story this month about college recruiting, Jennifer Salopek writes that online hiring has its limitations because many students base their perceptions of employers on their impression of the corporate representatives they meet on campus. It’s encouraging to know there’s still some balance between electronic and interpersonal communication, but for better or worse, it’s inevitable that we will increasingly communicate online as new social networks pop up and companies dream up technologies like the iPad.

Although I certainly appreciate and benefit from my cyberspace connections, they don’t create what I consider a true sense of community. I miss the intimacy of those bygone connections—sitting on the front porch on summer evenings conversing with neighbors, as we waited to hear the friendly melody signaling the ice cream truck’s arrival.

Workforce Management, September 2010, p. 50 -- Subscribe Now!