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This article first appeared in Business Tech on 5 May.

12 years ago there was an ongoing debate about the value of open internet access in the workplace.  Many corporates did not allow personnel access to the Internet in the workplace.  Then it was restricted access for the few who “actually needed it”. After all, why should they allow staff to browse for jobs or surf aimlessly. Fast-forward a few years and internet access had become an integral part of the working environment.  It became impossible to exist in the business world without having constant access.

The same questions now surround social access.  Why should business let their staff play Farmville and socialize all day? What would happen to productivity?

Businesses that restrict or forbid access to social platforms is a symptom of just how mis-understood social business is. They have not seen just how integral social interaction is becoming to business.  More importantly they are missing huge opportunities that come from engaging customers and employees in new ways. By the time they do realise it they may find themselves very far behind the international trend.

The ubiquity of Blackberries, iPhones, Samsung Galaxies and other smart phones means personnel will be accessing social platforms with or without the consent of their employers.  Online social interaction is becoming second nature to a growing number of people and they will, more and more, find ways to connect and do business socially by bypassing company structures and systems which is a recipe for confusion.

Add to that a recent study be Keas ( that shows that benefits of social media in the workplace can actually increase productivity.  This study focused on breaks that allow personnel to connect socially.  According to this study social connections make people happy and breaks that involve browsing or connecting socially increases productivity.

More important though is the benefit of having a social strategy that makes the best of socially savvy employees who become brand ambassadors on the social web.

Some notable South African companies have loosened the shackles and allow social access at work.  These include Ernst & Young and Discovery.

Ernest & Young open access across the board to all staff toward the end of last year. Asked if this decision has been beneficial Sugan Palanee, Head of Markets for E&Y said “The age of our average employee, the changing needs of the business world, the global reach of an organisation like Ernst & Young all add to the need for our people to be nimble and responsive.  The significant benefits are empowerment of our people and the trust we instil through the freedom that social media allows, sees us consistently in the Top 10 Employers to work for.”

Significantly, he adds “We all have something to sell, and no matter what it is, people who want to buy it are using social media.”

It simply makes sense to take advantage of the instant communication that social platforms provide by making them a part of the work environment.

Asked about the negatives Palanee said “In reality technology has grown and staff still stay connected with smart phones anyway. Indeed, social media, comes at a cost, but the benefits outweigh the negatives.”