Social media can facilitate employee engagement, but businesses must adopt it early if they are to make the most of it. That is the message from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), which is about to publish a survey on the topic.
The institute’s latest research, which will be published in December, shows that 16 per cent of employees think their organisations make good use of social media.
The poll, which was carried out by YouGov, found that just 26 per cent of employees work in organisations that have developed an internal social media platform.
“Usage is low in general,” says Jonny Gifford, research adviser for the CIPD. “But it’s going to increase. It’s starting to happen. In some organisations it’s proving to be a revelation.”
Social media can, for example, transform the annual survey, he says. “Employee surveys have broadly stayed the same for 50 years. In many organisations the only difference is it’s gone online. The basic model is the same. You tick boxes, click send and the views are digested by management.
“If they’re good they feed back the results. Often they don’t and it’s very much one-way communication. If they do feed back it often feels like a long time for employees to wait. Social media can make it instant.
“There’s nothing wrong with a survey in itself but it’s not dynamic,” Jonny says. “The difference between social media and the traditional survey is its not one way, it’s multi-directional. You can talk to each other about decisions. There’s less box ticking. You can see colleagues’ responses, and vote on each other’s responses.”
While some organisations choose a ready-made social media platform like Yammer, which is now used by over 200,000 companies worldwide, others choose to develop a bespoke platform. Jonny says that whichever route they choose, the key for employers is to adopt the technology early.
“In some respects there’s not a lot that employers can do,” he says. “The drive is coming from employees. Social media is an integral part of people’s lives and they bring it into the workplace.
“If you can’t control it, it will overtake you. You can, however, be early in adopting it and shape it.”
In one organisation, employees set up their own Yammer account. The organisation followed suit, launching an internal platform, but it was too late and the employees did not use it. “It was rejected,” he says. “In the end the company used Yammer.”
Jonny has found that, as social media has matured, so has people’s ability to voice their opinions. This has raised employees’ expectations of how they should be heard. “There’s big difference across age groups in use of social media, and that’s the same at work,” he says.
He says high-profile events like HMV employees using the company’s Twitter account to give live commentary on a round of redundancies have encouraged research on the risks associated with social media, especially to employers.
But the CIPD is now looking into the positive effects of social media, and how it can improve the participation of employees in decision making.
Its report, Social Media and Employee Voice: The Current Landscape, published in March, says there is little organisations can do to stem the rise of social media, and they should be designing their future in employee voice, before it designs them.
“As a result of the relentless advance of social media, employee voice is evolving rapidly,” it says. “The greatest difference is the shifting patterns of communication, from being one-way or two-way to being multi-directional. This has moved voice on from giving employees a say behind closed doors to enabling them to engage in an open forum. It is hard to ignore.”
Jonny Gifford says that because of their culture, co-operatives have particular opportunities to foster high levels of employee engagement. But these opportunities do not present themselves automatically.
The first opportunity, he says, is shared purpose. “The organisation might know what their history is, what they’re aiming for, what their targets are and at a fundamental level why they exist. But if that view of the organisation isn’t shared with the employees it’s difficult for the employees to buy into the organisation and engage. It’s not enough to love your job, you need to understand the purpose and vision of the organisation and how that’s related to your job.”
The second opportunity, he explains, is employee voice. “It’s not about one-way communication,” he says. “It enables employees to help make improvements and it contributes directly to employee engagement. It’s a way of valuing employees.”
The third opportunity comes with a stake in ownership. “Financial participation is very relevant for employee engagement and strengthens the link between what you do as an employee and what you get in return,” Jonny says.
“The government has latched onto this in the last year or so, and is promoting share ownership amongst employees. What it misses is that this is not enough. You’ve got to have the right culture.
“There are opportunities for co-operatives,” he adds. “If they play to their strengths there’s a lot they can do.”