Cat pictures vs. ambient awareness: is social business a waste of time?

In the wired workplace, managers face a devious and implacable new enemy – kittens.

With the temptations of LOLCats and similar sites readily accessible, many bosses fear their employees are spending increasing amounts of time cooing over kitties, shopping for fishing lures or discussing weekend plans and hometown gossip. Aren’t social business tools just another avenue for employees to goof off?

Though adorable kittens are easy to joke about, this remains a serious concern to those that are considering investing in social tools, and an issue that, believe it or not, has attracted significant interest from experts and researchers. What did they find?

In short, idle office chat gets a bad rap. Swapping funny GIFs and weekend plans may account for a small percentage of traffic on social business tools, but these activities actually do something other than waste time. They boost productivity, bond teams and raise ambient awareness. More on ambient awareness in a minute, but first…

More kittens = more productivity

How is this possible? The simplest way that tech-enabled sociability raises productivity is by de-stressing those that engage in a moderate amount of it. For instance, The Washington Post reports that a team of Japanese researchers recently found “that those who saw the baby animal pictures did more productive work after seeing those photographs.”

The scientists chalked up the finding to the baby animals activating participants’ instincts to be vigilant and nurturing. But the positive psychological benefits of socializing through tech aren’t narrowly limited to furry, round-eyed cuties. A study out of the University of Melbourne also found that moderate use of social media at work actually boosts productivity, probably by reducing stress.

Closer teams through cat sharing

These happy results apply to a specific use of social tools – the brain-clearing break – but loosening the reins and allowing employees the technology to be more digitally social has even more powerful benefits.

Sure, providing an enterprise social tool may aid the circulation of a few (probably productivity-boosting) cat pictures, but along with this sharing of seemingly irrelevant information, another powerful byproduct will be created: Ambient awareness. Writing for the New York Times Magazine, Clive Thompson defined the idea:

“Social scientists have a name for this sort of incessant online contact. They call it ‘ambient awareness.’ It is, they say, very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does — body language, sighs, stray comments — out of the corner of your eye… Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives.”

Though Thompson is writing about consumer social media, there’s plenty of evidence that ambient awareness can be valuable to organizations. This tech-enabled closeness, which Thompson likens to physical proximity, author Mark Fidelman has dubbed a “digital village.”

Small town vibe in a big, wild world

Building your digital village, and tolerating the attendant gossip and chatter we all associate with small towns, is essential, Fidelman argues. Social technologies can “make an organization feel like a small village, where connecting with people is as easy as clicking on a name in the activity stream or obtaining results from a search,” which, he writes, has benefits including:

  • Making the organization quicker to adapt, respond, and be proactive.
  • Allowing teams to better work together and collaborate with employees and vendors.
  • Improving employees’ ability to share and push forward creative and practical ideas that meet business objectives.

Less social, more traditional communication styles may be more cat-proof, but they’re also often inadequate to our fast-moving world, as Salesforce executive John Wookey has explained. Older models where “nobody in one big division knows what the heck anybody in another division is doing… have become increasingly stressed as companies get bigger, as they get more global and as the market moves faster,” he has said.

Lose the cats, in other words, and you lose the adaptability and agility.

Some innovative organizations have already gotten the memo, including GitHub, which told GigaOM that the company created chat rooms explicitly designed as spaces where employees can tell jokes, kick back and, yes, probably even share silly pictures. “One of the things that can ruin companies as they grow is lack of communication,” CEO Chris Wanstrath explained.

Post by Jessica Stillman

Jessica Stillman is a semi-nomadic freelance writer (current location: sunny Nicosia, Cyprus) with interests in entrepreneurship, remote collaboration, unconventional career paths and generational differences.