Employers shouldnt ban staff from using social media during work hours. Quite the opposite, in fact

Its what any employer would want: flexibility. The flexibility to hire and fire fairly quickly, to use contingent labour ie zero-hours contracts, to make it possible for people to work and be on call anytime, anywhere. The flip-side of the remote, off-site workforce is that it aggravates another traditional management concern: actually seeing people at work getting on with it. Supervisory management has a long and at times noble tradition managers who care, who pay attention and so on. But there is another meaning in that word supervision, which is altogether less benign. Big Brother may not be watching right now. But how do you know?

Our worst fears were provoked by headlines this week, which stated that bosses would now have the right to delve not only into our personal email accounts, but also our Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram activity. Happily, it turned out that many of the headlines were exaggerated, and that the stories were incorrect. They had got the wrong end of the memory stick.

The employment lawyer Darren Newman clarified the matter in a helpful blog. The key word, as so often, is reasonableness. Does the employer have a business need to monitor emails? Is the level and intrusiveness proportionate to that need? And have you made it clear to employees how and why monitoring might take place? In short: employees still have a reasonable expectation of privacy, whether they are using company or their own kit.

Still, the bum steer from the papers has opened up an important discussion: when are you working and when are you not working? Are you stealing time from your employer if you drop into Facebook for a moment? Should employers ever ban their staff from using social media during office hours or any agreed shift? These questions take us into the familiar work/life balance debate. But new technology has subverted that debate, just as it has turned so many aspects of our lives on their heads. Many of us are, in a sense, working and not working at the same time, for much of the time.

For example, your social media presence may not only amuse and impress your friends, but could remind a potential employer that you are available. If we are heading for a gig economy, we will need to publicise our services even when we are nominally off duty. How many of your Facebook friends are really friends, for that matter? Are they in fact contacts? Or both? There may be no simple answers to these questions in 2016.

The danger of flexibility is that it only works one way, to the advantage of the employer alone. But if we are going to be on call and contactable all the time thanks to smartphones it seems reasonable that word again to grab back some time to ourselves every now and again. If you work in sales, you need to know what your customers might be thinking about. When a story goes viral you may need to get involved to do your job properly. In this way social media might actually boost your productivity, not undermine it. So am I in favour of workplace/worktime bans on social media usage, or halting gossipy texts and emails sent between colleagues? Hell, no.

We are more connected than ever. But, at the same time, we need to work harder on our relationships. Too often we are, in the words of Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT, alone together. Sometimes we should put the phone down, possibly even switch it off(!), and look each other in the eye. You may strike up a constructive conversation with someone. And if it at least looks like work, your boss will be happy.

In fact this always-on technology may offer us help in another important area. Look at the birth rate. Look at our struggling productivity and skills shortages. I would say it is your patriotic and economic duty to stop reading this article now and consider, respectfully, sexting your partner. No one will ever know (probably). We need more people, urgently. Its a tough job, but somebodys got to do it.

Read more: www.theguardian.com