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Play hard work hard

22 Jan 2009


London Business School’s Management Innovation Lab – MLab – looks at developments in management from an array of different angles.

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Increasingly it is tracking the rise of what it labels Management 2.0, an innovative managerial counterpoint to the second generation of Internet technology. Advances in technology are challenging preconceptions about what managers do and what constitutes managerial efficiency.  Indeed, spending time on social networking sites may be something companies eventually encourage.  Julian Birkinshaw examines innovations in the way we socialise.... and work.

Do you use Facebook at work?  Chances are, you're not allowed to. According to some studies, as many as two-thirds of UK companies have banned employees from on-line social networking during the working day. It is seen as a time-wasting activity, a breeder of gossip, and a security concern.  

This type of knee-jerk reaction is understandable, because it happens every time new technology enters the workplace.  But it is also dead wrong.  Consider the findings of another study of 1000 employees.  More than half the respondents said they were less likely to leave a company that encouraged them to socialise.  And those respondents who declared a high commitment to their employers were significantly more likely to spend time on social activities than those who were scouting around for another job.

In other words, there is an important correlation between commitment to a job and social interaction.  Now, this is not a stunning new insight - "work hard, play hard" has been the mantra of Silicon Valley start ups for years; Douglas McGregor wrote about this phenomenon in the 1950s; and William Lever and George Cadbury understood it more than a century ago.  But it takes on new meaning in today's workplace. Not only are the media for social interaction changing, we also have a new generation of employees -- the so-called Generation Y or Millenials -- with new demands and expectations about what they can expect from a job.

Think about what we really mean by work hard, play hard.  If your employees take a "social networking" slice out of their work day, does that mean the "value added work" slice becomes smaller?  Or does it help to grow the size of the pie?  The research quoted earlier suggests that the pie grows.   If people are allowed to do social things at work, they are likely to engage more fully, and for longer, than those who are not.

So why does the pie grow?  Here are three plausible arguments.
First, by condoning play at work, you are changing the psychological contract with your employees.  The message is: I trust you to do the right thing, and I will evaluate you on your outputs, not on your inputs.  Your employees will appreciate the space you give them, and will likely repay your trust with more creative and more thoughtful outputs.  This is the essence of McGregor's Theory Y: a management style build on the assumption that people want to do a good job at work.

Second, the more your employees engage in social networking at work, the more the boundary between work and home blurs.  Some people like to keep the two worlds separate, and usually the more creative or playful part of their personality is hidden at work, only coming out at night or at the weekend.  Other people, often working in start-ups or for themselves, are happy to interweave their home and work lives.  They bring their whole selves to work, and they put in the effort that is needed to get the job done.  Ultimately it's a similar outcome to the first point, but the mechanism is different - in the first case, behaviour is shaped by the personal relationship between the manager and the employee, in the second case behaviour is shaped by the physical and social surroundings in the workplace.

Third, the emergence of a new technology typically has far-reaching and unpredictable consequences.  No-one guessed that paging technology, originally invented to alert doctors to emergencies, would spawn an entirely new form of social interaction, text-messaging.  The value of new technologies emerges over time as users experiment with them and link them with other technologies.  Social networking may look like a look like an enjoyable waste of time today, but the chances are it will lead to new applications and inspire new and productive ways of working in the not-too-distant future.

Listen to Julian Birkinshaw's podcast.

Julian Birkinshaw (jbirkinshaw@london.edu) is Research Director of the Management Innovation Lab at London Business School.