Workers at AT Kearney connect with their friends on Facebook now and then when they're on the job, and that's just fine with executives there.
Instead of discouraging employees from using social networks when they're on the job, Kevin Rice, enterprise network architect at the Chicago-based global management and consulting firm, said being social, even outside the confines of the company, make workers more comfortable and happy. The company employs about 3,500 people at 55 offices in 38 countries.
And happy workers make him happy.
"There used to be a time when you'd go to work and you couldn't wait to get off and you wouldn't think about work after work," Rice said. "Today, there's very little down time. You're thinking about work even when you're not at work. And now you work six hours in the office and then you go home and work another four or five hours. You have to attend to work and personal relationships. These tools make that easier."
While some corporate executives might worry that productivity would take a hit if employees used work time to post photos of their kids or comment on their college roommate's latest bike trip, Rice isn't worried about that at all.
"If you're at work 12 or 15 hours a day, there are times when you want to break away and have a connection with reality, and connecting with family and friends allows you to do that," he said. Employees at AT Kearney often work at least 12-hour days. "These tools allow you to work that many hours ... without going stir crazy."
Rice noted that AT Kearney uses Microsoft tools, such as SharePoint and Lync, to keep employees connected within the company. However, employees can escape the company network and take a breather with consumer-oriented social media.
Earlier this month, a report from industry research firm Gartner, noted that the number of large companies that block employees from accessing social networking sites while on the job is dropping.
The Gartner study showed that in 2010, 50% of large organizations blocked social sites, but by 2014, that number should drop to 30%. The study found that for some company departments and processes, such as marketing, access to external social media is a business need. Meanwhile, employees are finding ways to circumvent corporate blocks by using their personal smartphones.
Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group, said it's well known that employees take breaks from working on spreadsheets and marketing reports to check out what's happening on social sites like Facebook, Google+, Twitter and Pinterest.
Maybe it's time for employers to recognize that it can be good for a workforce that has endured a down economy and bosses who expect fewer people to do the job of a once-bigger staff, he said.
"At an individual level, most managers know that workers are putting in more hours, including evenings and weekends, and they will turn a blind eye toward non-work activities, like Facebook, during working hours," said Olds. "But most official corporate policies that HR reps quote from aren't nearly as understanding."
That may eventually change, however, at least in some enterprises.
"I think employers have to recognize that whether or not they like it, workers can't, and won't, put in 100% effort 100% of the time," Olds added. "Social networking gives them a break from work and, as long as it doesn't get out of hand, isn't a threat to productivity. It's better than the three-martini lunch or employees spending hours around the water cooler."
Rice also noted that allowing workers time to connect on social networks is a good recruiting tool for younger workers, who are accustomed to using social media throughout their day.
"These kids are using these tools every day," Rice said. "It's a big part of making them happy. It shows them that we're in line with today's technology and practices ... It is not your grandfather's company anymore."
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.