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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

How Much is Too Much? Using Social Media at the Office

Your computer screen is awash with windows: Outlook open in one, budget spreadsheet lurking in another, a PowerPoint stashed off to the side. You’re a multi-tasking master, and you’re amazed at how much progress you’re making.

Then? A Facebook notification pops up: Two people just liked your brilliantly snarky status update. Validation! You click, reply, refresh—wait, two more!—click, reply, refresh. Suddenly, it’s 5 PM and those pesky slides are nowhere near complete. Where has the time gone?

Some companies have applauded the rise of social media as a way to increase connection among employees, clients, and the world at large, while others have gone so far as to block it to make sure employees stay focused on their “real work.” Most companies, though, fall somewhere in the middle—leaving you to set your own social media boundaries. So, how do you know it’s time to step away from the virtual water cooler? Here are a few useful guidelines to help keep your boss happy and you out of trouble.

Rules? Respect Them

Though more and more employers recognize how unrealistic it is to expect workers to completely ignore social media at the office, half of companies surveyed have implemented a formal policy governing its use. Is your workplace among them? Even if you’re lucky enough to be able to tweet on the job, there could very well exist a code of conduct or other guidelines you’re expected to heed before you type. If so, educate yourself and become familiar with the dos and don’ts. The last thing you want is to be that gal (or guy) who makes an unfortunate faux pas and spoils the social networking fun for everyone.

If you're new at the office, you should also uncover your workplace’s general attitude toward social media use. Look around. Does your cubemate ever peek at her Facebook wall? Do you often glimpse your boss scrolling through his Twitter feed, or is he strictly business? Observe the unwritten rules—and follow those, too.

Discretion is Essential

It may be common sense, but it still deserves to be said: Just because you’ve been blessed with social media privileges, doesn’t mean you have free reign to post whatever you want.

Remember that social networking is a public activity, and your boss and colleagues (both current and future) could be watching. Client on your last nerve? Take a deep breath and step away from the keyboard: You wouldn’t want an ill-tempered tweet to come back and create additional friction later on. Ready to check in to a meeting on Foursquare? Protect your business and think twice—the meeting might not be as “public” as you think. The Interwebs are forever, and anything you put up online can be archived and subject to a future search.

Also be sure to take extra precautions if you work in a sensitive field such as teaching or healthcare: High school English instructor Ashley Payne learned this the hard way when she was fired after a parent complained about a Facebook photo of her drinking alcohol while on a European vacation. We all have different tastes, and what may be a seemingly harmless action to you could be very offensive to someone else.

Mind Your Productivity

A number of experts assert that brief personal social media “breaks” at the office can help to reduce stress, freshen the mind, and boost morale. So yes, a five-minute foray into Facebook could be just the reset button you need on a rough day. But as we all well know, social media is a wily temptress, with her bewitching “likes” and captivating grumpy cat videos, and she can easily make cyberloafers of us all.

If you’re concerned about falling into her clutches, remember: It’s your work reputation on the line. Try to limit non-essential visits to when you’re off the clock, or save them for your lunch break. Or, give yourself discrete 5- or 10-minute breaks to check social media, and then log yourself completely off when your break time is up—you know you’re about as productive with your TweetDeck open in the background as you would be if you plopped your laptop down in the break room to get work done. Aziz Ansari’s 140-character witticisms will still be there waiting for you once you’ve met your deadline, and a thumbs-up from your boss will make your self-discipline totally worth it in the end.

Find the Value

Certainly, social media is much more than an outlet to share the latest Gangnam Style parody or wax poetic on that succulent burger you had for lunch. And depending on what industry you’re in, you can reap many on-the-job benefits if you use it effectively.

For example, are you hiring? Your supervisor probably won’t be opposed to a foray into Twitter-land if you’re using it to network or to screen potential candidates for an open position. Marketing a new product? Turn to Facebook to generate buzz. Developers often reach out to app companies on Twitter to help troubleshoot a bug, while graphic designers might create a visual moodboard on Pinterest for project inspiration. Show that your social media use is benefitting your job—not detracting from it—and your boss is bound to be much more cool about its use in general.

Now that you’re (hopefully) a bit more social media savvy and have that office addiction under control, tell us: Does your company have a formal social media policy? How do you avoid cyberslacking while on the job?

Photo of woman on phone courtesy of Shutterstock.