Social media at work can help people collaborate, but it can also lead to turnover.

What That Like Button Really Does to Your Workforce

Research shows sites like Twitter and LinkedIn could boost workplace collaboration. But it can also lead them astray.

Everyone knows what it’s like to fall down the rabbit hole of Facebook and Instagram or get tugged into the time warp of Pinterest and Twitter. That’s obviously bad news for productivity at work.

The real threat of social media to employers, however, may not just be simple  distraction. Instead, it’s an increased risk of employees quitting their jobs. 

But wait. Social media is a reality of work. At least 77 percent of workers use social media while on the job. Yet still, at least half of U.S. employers block access to social media at work, believing it kills productivity. 

Talk to employees, and they’ll often say that social media is a good thing that facilitates collaboration, idea sharing and problem solving. One survey suggests that as many as 82% of employees think social media can improve their work relationships and more than half of them say it even boosts decision-making. A California State University study even found that employees who engaged with coworkers on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook were more motivated and came up with innovative ideas.

Great, but what’s the catch?

That same study showed that when people interacted with those outside their organizations on social media, their interest in work, and overall motivation to do work, dropped.

In fact, the researchers found that making outside connections on social media led to more distraction and lower productivity. (Slap your forehead now because really, as an employer, it feels as if you can’t win.) As many as three-quarters of employees who use social media for work took interest in other organizations they found using the platform, compared to 60% who use social media only for leisure.

Of course, this all shouldn’t be too surprising. With all of its glorification of vacation photos and polished, put-together profiles, social media is, by nature, a case of the grass is always greener.

But what do you do about it as an employer?  Lorenzo Bizzi, assistant professor of management at California State, who conducted the above research, suggests that managers use social media training to focus on positive social behaviors, like collaboration. That, he theorizes, can boost employee satisfaction and potentially reduce turnover.  Employers can also use social media to recognize employees’ accomplishments and highlight success stories.

Bizzi’s interest in the effect of social networks on the workplace isn’t isolated. Today’s level of distraction and the endless online conversations have led to a multitude of  studies that explore how social media impacts work, from improving collaboration to encouraging deviant behavior. 

Baylor University Prof. John Carlson, for instance, studied how social media and the workplace intersect in a paper titled, Social Media Use in the Workplace: A Study of Dual Effects. His findings aren’t earth shattering: the more intensely you use social media, the more you exhibit all of its effects—from improving job performance to killing productivity. Says Carlson: “I’ve always been interested in what happens when tech misfires.”

The takeaway? Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer for employers. The key is to strike a balance. Employers should encourage positive social media use that lets people get their job done more effectively and most important, encourage use that boosts morale. Otherwise, you might find your employees fall down the rabbit hole of posts that ultimately lead to another employer.