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NSFW: The over-sharing generation at work

Tom Cheesewright

Tom Cheesewright

Not Suitable for Work. You'll find this phrase all over the web. But should it also apply to employees' social media profiles? Our futurist Tom Cheesewright thinks so

Too much information. Sometimes you just don't want to know everything about a person you have to manage. In the past it might have been a straightforward affair to keep the weekend shenanigans or those saucy snaps a secret. But these days a simple Google search or even an accidental click will tell any colleague or prospective employer all they might – or might not – want to know.

Read the guidance for contemporary students looking to enter the workforce and the advice is clear: clean up your profile. Separate your personal life from work. Because when it comes to getting a job, you don't want employers seeing those festival pics on Facebook.

But will this attitude survive the influx of the new social-media literate graduates into the workplace? I don't think so.

Liberation and liberalisation

Look at the history of the workplace. Over the last century it has become more liberal, not less. Women have entered and progressively made up more of the workforce – albeit with some way to go to achieve full equality. Standards of dress have changed dramatically, at least in some industries. Even prime ministers and presidents have given up the tie for certain occasions. So much more of our personality comes into the office than before: large chunks of international conference calls are consumed with discussions of weekend plans.

When it comes to getting a job, you don't want employers seeing those festival pics on Facebook

Given this prevailing trend it seems unlikely that in the long term it will be the Facebook generation that needs to bow to the rules. Rather they will shape the rules in their own image. The workplace will continue to be casualised, and our online personalities will be become an accepted part of our office persona.

There will have to be limits to this, of course. But more subtle and dynamic limits than those currently enabled by Google's Circles or Facebook's tiering. At Lancaster University one researcher is looking at intelligent software systems that can learn the type of relationship we have with another individual and choose what is appropriate content to share. But knowing the difference between pictures of an office Christmas party and a boozy binge when you've called in sick will take a very smart piece of software.

Facebook friction

In the short term there will be no end of friction caused by old rules and new behaviours conflicting, as is the way with all change. During this period managers will have to do a lot of careful thinking about the etiquette of social media in work and recruitment. Even if we can, very easily, access a lot of information about a prospect, should we? If we are going to take a risqué Facebook profile into account, shouldn't we look at other, potentially more positive forms of evidence about a person's qualities?

For example, it's no small feat to build up a sizeable Twitter following, whatever your choice of content. Skills like that can be very valuable. One business partner of mine always asks prospective software developers for the address of their GitHub account, a place where he can see what software projects they have contributed to. For him that's a much better benchmark of their ultimate quality than any summer job or degree score.

There's a phrase used by everyone from IBM to the NHS when promoting teleworking: “Work is something you do, not somewhere you go.” For me this has much broader meaning than just location. The office is intrinsically associated with all of the old formalities of work: dress code, required hours, hierarchy, and uniformity. Over time these structures are being broken down in favour of a much better standard of measurement: achievement.

What all managers and leaders want is a workforce that delivers. From recruitment to removal, we need a set of tools to manage our staff that measures achievement and excludes all else. Achievement must be measured in the context of a collaborative working environment and the shared goals of the organisation. And this is not to say that the business should neglect its role in pastoral care, important for maintaining productivity if not for more moral reasons. But fundamentally what someone helps the organisation to achieve clearly outweighs other factors when it comes to their value.

As more and more information about current and prospective employees becomes available online we need to be very clear about what is useful information in assessing real and potential achievement, and what is distraction. We should be using more digital data to understand our people. But it has to be the right data.

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