Another major employer has banned access to Facebook amid concerns that staff are neglecting work for social networking.

Transport for London is following the likes of LloydsTSB, Credit Suisse and the Metropolitan Police in the UK, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup in the US and Telstra in Australia by stopping staff logging on.

Facebook users in the UK spend an average three hours 11 minutes on the site each month and a recent study suggests that across the country 70% of employers have banned access, with some making logging on during work time a sackable offence.

There is little doubt that the UK is currently gripped by social networking, with Facebook membership currently standing at 3.2m in the UK and growing by around 3% a month.

Throw in MySpace, YouTube, blogs, podcasts, online shopping, booking holidays, sorting out car insurance or general surfing and it is little wonder that some employers are getting twitchy about providing internet access in the office. 

But is banning the likes of Facebook the right way forward?

I had a conversation with a company director recently who bemoaned the fact that whenever he walks through his department every other computer screen is filled with “non-work related” sites. He then moved on to ask whether I was registered on LinkedIn and spent several minutes telling me what a great idea it is.

So what is the difference between Facebook and LinkedIn? Will those companies currently banning access to social networking sites also move to restrict access to more business orientated sites?

There is undoubtedly a difference between such sites.

But answering questions on LinkedIn from fellow members about the way I take notes in meetings, how I manage my contacts book, whether I would happy to use public transport more regularly for work – all asked out of purely business-related reasons, obviously – takes up as much time and deflects from “normal” work as accepting a couple of crabs and a swordfish from my wife for my Facebook acquarium or catching up with a long-lost former colleague.

The danger is, of course, that firms create a “them and us” culture – or, rather, exaggerates an existing divisive culture – by putting restrictions on sites used by employees but not those accessed by their managers or directors.

Equally, how many of these companies are investigating why staff are so demotivated that they spend so much time on anything other than work?

This is the bigger issue that is obviously harder to tackle, so firms take the easier option and leave the really difficult stuff for another time (or never).

Like most things in life, moderation rather than an all-out ban is the best way forward.

Social networking does have a role to play in the workplace – but in small doses.

It has the capacity to improve the mood of the workplace and a happy office is a productive office, or so the management gurus tell us. Managing use of such internet sites is the key, rather than a blanket restriction.

Creating a working environment where people don’t feel the need to spend too long on such sites is the positive way forward. Imposing a total ban suggests a failure of basic management.

Whether companies and organisations like it or not – and clearly most don’t like it very much at all – an ever-increasing number of us are living an online life. Banning us from logging on is not a medium or long-term solution.

It forms part of the challenge facing many employers these days to create the right work-life balance.

And it is a challenge many acknowledge, but few actually understand.

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