A captivating new phenomenon in business communication recently has emerged: office-wide social networking sites. Reading an article in The Globe and Mail last week detailing the pros and cons of this rapidly growing form of internal communication, I was struck by the possibilities for valuable discussion between all levels of employees that this casual forum enables. And yet I couldn’t help but wonder: what new questions or problems for communication etiquette could these sites invite? As I learned more about the sites and their benefits, I kept this question in mind.
The interfaces of company social networking sites such as Yammer may look like Facebook – but their purposes vary greatly. Instead of providing a space for posting photos and networking with friends and acquaintances, office social networks are limited to discussions within a company, and exist for sharing ideas or questions regarding projects, products, issues, or anything else traditionally addressed in a meeting or an e-mail chain between colleagues.
To me, this kind of in-office discussion seems ripe with potential. Providing such a familiar meeting space could allow employees to feel more relaxed about casually proposing ideas. It’s also a great solution to keep employees who are traveling, working off-site, or who otherwise couldn’t attend a meeting in the loop. And, as Carly Weeks of the Globe and Mail points out, such sites can “put an end to annoying, time-wasting and hard-to-follow e-mail chains between large groups of employees.”
What, however, could the downsides of company-wide social networks be? To start, analysts at research firms such as Forrester Research and IDC Canada argue that all employees – from senior level managers to Millenial-generation interns – must actively partake in the sites in order for them to be effective. Convincing all members of a company to participate could be a challenge.
But what really interested me was what the growing popularity of these sites could mean for business communication. As e-mail several years ago introduced an array of business communication faux-pas that some professionals still grapple with today, so might social networking sites invite a level of informality, which could be inappropriate when used in a discussion that your boss or manager could be contributing to as well.
How casual is too casual, when participating in an informal online forum? Although your colleagues may include some of your best friends, remember that everyone in your company will be able to see what you post – and that includes senior-level VPs. Therefore, retain a level of formality with your words. Don’t use Internet abbreviations such as “lol” and emoticons: you want your ideas to be taken seriously; let your language reflect that. In addition, even though these sites act as a space for informal discussion, do put some thought into your posts before you hit “send.” Even if the sites offer a “delete” button, you don’t want some colleagues to read words that you will later regret writing.
It will be interesting to see whether these company-wide social networks take off. Maybe they will go so far as to replace internal e-mail, or perhaps the excitement will simply fade out before the vast majority of companies have a chance to experiment with these new forums. Either way, remember – that no matter what the setting – your language and your communication skills will always represent you and your ideas. Keep them professional, tactful, and appropriate.