Social media divides federal workforce

The dispute masks a larger concern about performance management — a concern that often cuts across generational lines

If social media is not the cause of the generational divide in the federal workforce, it's certainly the most visible sign.

On the surface, it is largely a disagreement about the role of social media in the office. Is Facebook or any other social networking site an integral part of the workday, just like e-mail, as some young workers believe? Or is it a productivity sinkhole, as some of their supervisors and older co-workers feel?

The dispute masks a larger concern about performance management — a concern that often cuts across generational lines. Do employees need to account for their activities throughout the day, by the hour — if not the minute? Or should they be judged primarily on the outcome of those activities?

In some cases, managers have a difficult time getting past the basic productivity issue. That was a topic of debate at the Open Government and Innovations Conference held earlier this month in Washington and sponsored by the 1105 Government Information Group, parent company of Federal Computer Week.

What is most disturbing about young workers is "the fact that every time I walk by their cubicle, they’re on their personal Facebook account,” said Lt. Col. Charlotte Herring, chief of the information technology division of the Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps. It bothers her “not because I think they are putting up stuff that’s inappropriate or classified or shouldn’t be out there. It’s the fact that they’re not working.”

Herring was one of several panelists who spoke during a session titled “The case for cool: How young employees are infusing government with much-needed innovation,” as reported by Richard Walker on FCW.com.

However, younger government workers on the panel emphasized the utility of social media tools.

“Like all communications tools, there’s a time and place for what you’re doing,” said Steve Ressler, a former IT specialist at Immigration and Customs Enforcement who created GovLoop, an online meeting place for government employees worldwide.

Ressler compared social media to a multitooled Swiss army knife. “Sometimes e-mail is very effective at certain things, and Twitter and social networks are effective at other things,” Ressler said. "It isn’t either/or. It’s using all of them."

Readers commenting on FCW’s article were more skeptical.

“This is purely and simply a complete waste of taxpayer resources, and any administrator permitting such activities is a poor steward of our tax dollars and is complicit in the waste and abuse,” wrote Michael D. Long. “Individuals engaged in frivolous activities should be disciplined, leading to discharge should the pattern of behavior continue.”

But the changing work environment is changing the discussion about productivity. The advent of telework, in particular, makes it difficult for managers to judge employees in terms of their work habits. When employees work at home, the question is not how they spend their day but what work they have accomplished by the end of it.

Some management experts say that's how employees should be assessed no matter where they work.

“It’s time to take what is already happening in an ad hoc fashion and make it an intentional, consistent way of operating,” wrote Anne Weisberg, director of talent at Deloitte Services, and William Eggers, global research director of Deloitte’s Public Sector Industry practice, in a recent article on FCW.com ("Workplace flexibility as the new normal").

That article is part of the FCW Challenge, a joint project between Federal Computer Week and GovLoop that aims to spur debate on key topics in the federal IT community. Learn more at FCW.com/fcwchallenge.

The idea of management by walking around is “being replaced by managing to results — and giving the team a lot of say in how they achieve those outcomes,” Weisberg and Eggers wrote. “Organizations that embrace this way of working have more engaged workers and achieve greater results.”

“Employees who feel they are treated like professionals will tend to contribute wherever and whenever they can, as professionals,” one reader responded. “Management by results…many organizations have the technology but will they trust supervisors to implement it intelligently? Those that do will get the results they need.”

Meanwhile, the CIO Council is doing its part to help managers adjust. Last week, the council released the “Net Generation Guide,” writes Amber Corrin at FCW.com. The report discusses how to draw in and keep up-and-coming workers who have been shaped by technology and an abundance of information and speedy communications.

About the Author

John Monroe is Senior Events Editor for the 1105 Public Sector Media Group, where he is responsible for overseeing the development of content for print and online content, as well as events. John has more than 20 years of experience covering the information technology field. Most recently he served as Editor-in-Chief of Federal Computer Week. Previously, he served as editor of three sister publications: civic.com, which covered the state and local government IT market, Government Health IT, and Defense Systems.

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