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The great irony of ‘social’ media is that its users, desperately seeking a renewed tribal sense of belonging in an increasingly virtual world, often end up feeling even more isolated. The same can be said for the much-celebrated virtualization and globalization of business.

Organic, authentic company cultures dissipated as a result of the rise of email, digital efficiency and global integration. As multinational companies spread across the world and more jobs were done entirely on computers, employees quickly began to lose their sense of engagement with the whole.

While companies focused on using digital tools to increase productivity, lonely workers used them to try to rediscover a feeling of belonging in their jobs. In The Tyranny of Email, John Freeman says the average office drone sends and receives 200 emails a day, most of which are to and from coworkers. It’s a poor replacement for the human interaction they’re craving, but a replacement nonetheless.

A 2016 Harvard Business Review study found that the typical office employee spends around 80% of their time in meetings and responding to email, scratching that burning social itch but leaving little time for the productive work employers expect of them. Clearly, an alternative approach is needed.

The challenges in creating a sense of belonging online

Some optimistic executives see internal social networks as the answer to restoring a sense of belonging so that employees stop trying to find it in endless meetings and emails. They buy into the idea that unleashing an internal social network will once again make employees feel like they are part of something, and that this will get them back to doing productive work.

Business leaders tend to be rudely awoken from that dream because they didn’t have a long-term strategy to make it work. With no strategy, enthusiasm for the internal social network peters out after an initial buzz of activity. Social employees excitedly come on board expecting something akin to Facebook, but when faced with something bland and near-deserted they see no reason to come back.

It’s likely that many employees question the wisdom of posting anything remotely challenging for their colleagues and bosses to see. It’s safer to send a private email or call. Others, already battling an onslaught of email, see company social media as another layer of busywork and office politics, rather than something to replace Outlook. Back to email they all go, no one feeling any more engaged.

Internal social networks can (and must) be the answer

This is a bleak perspective on the digital workplace and internal social networks. But they can actually work. In fact, if companies want to recreate anything resembling a unique, meaningful culture and an engaged workforce in the digital age, they must work. Global corporations and virtual work are here to stay, and employers need workers to find a new sense of belonging in this reshaped world.

It won’t be easy. A successful internal social network is earned, not bought. The key to making it work, initially, is authentic leadership participation. Like the alphas in an ancient tribe, employees look up to and follow their leaders. This means executives can’t dismiss the internal social network as a time-waster, but must actively use and promote it as the place where productive collaboration happens.

It needs to the platform on which serious questions are asked, big problems are solved, and people are themselves. This is where executives must lead by example. If they don’t use the internal social network for anything other than sporadically keeping up appearances with formal ghost-written messages, how can they expect their employees to?

Dan Pontecraft, an executive at the Canadian telco TELUS, realized as far back as 2008 that internal social networks could only work with genuine leadership involvement. In 2014, he said this approach had helped boost employee engagement from 53% to 83% in five years.

For more executives to achieve the same, they too must rethink their alpha roles in today’s digital tribe.

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