By Catey Hill
If you’re like many workers, your lunch break looks something like this: scarf, scan Facebook FB, +0.43% ; scarf, scan Twitter; scarf, Pin cute kitty cat pics. But for millions of workers, this kind of behavior is forbidden at work—though employees can easily skirt such bans.
Roughly one in five employers has blocked its employees from using Facebook on their work computers, according to data released Monday by research firm Statista. What’s more, about 15% ban Twitter, 14% YouTube, 11% Pinterest and 10% LinkedIn. Some even prohibit the use of webmail programs like Gmail and Yahoo (9%).
Companies likely ban these sites because they consider them distracting to workers, says Felix Richter, the media relations manager for Statista. In fact, workplace Facebook browsing alone costs U.S. employers an estimated $28 billion in lost productivity each year. And the problem isn’t just that time spent on Facebook and Twitter should be time spent on work; it’s also that it takes a while for workers to get back on track once they are distracted. Research by Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California at Irvine, found that it takes some people up to 23 minutes to return to working on their original task.
But efforts to ban social media may be futile. “These bans probably aren’t going to prevent workers from using social media,” says Mike Vidikan, an account executive at Innovaro, a company that mines social media data. In fact, three in four workers admit to accessing a social media site like Facebook or Twitter on the job from their personal mobile device at least once a day, and 60% to accessing one multiple times a day, according to the Social Media and Workplace 2012 report released last year. And “with the proliferation of smartphone use, this practice is expected to grow,” the report concludes.
What’s more, these bans could actually hurt some businesses. “Employees are ambassadors for the companies they work for,” says Vidikan. “Restricting these sites might prevent them from talking about the good things at the company.” (And workers who are banned from these sites aren’t likely to post on the sites from their smartphones during work hours for fear of retribution from the companies.) Plus, it may create resentment among employees. “People’s home and work lives have been blurring for many years,” he says. Employers have no problem asking people to work extra hours at home, for instance, so workers might see it as particularly unfair if they aren’t given any freedom to use social media at work. “Millennials especially are always connected and expect to be able to use social media at work,” he says. “Companies that try to stop them may have a hard time retaining them,” he says.
But despite their potential downsides (and limited enforceability on mobile devices), these bans aren’t entirely ineffective. While they won’t prevent all social media use at work, they probably will reduce it. After all, workers won’t want to be seen glued to their smartphone screen every time the boss walks by. And this, in turn, can boost worker productivity and companies’ bottom lines—by millions.