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A Conversation with: Tanja Carstensen

Social media pile on the pressure

München, 08/29/2016

The advent of Facebook, Xing and other online platforms is changing the world of work. By placing ever more emphasis on self-organization, they promote self-exploitation. Workers now need digital profiles, says sociologist Tanja Carstensen.

Source: Di-Studio / Fotolia.com

You have conducted interviews with employees and employees’ representatives in companies that use social media a great deal. How would you characterize the role that social media now play in the workplace?
Carstensen: Although many occupations have yet to be affected by digitalization, online social networks are becoming increasingly important for professional success. Even job recruitment is moving onto online platforms. In addition to Xing and LinkedIn, sector-specific sites have also appeared. Companies use these technologies, and expect their employees to make use of them too – either in relation to marketing or for organizational purposes – in the hope that the enthusiasm with which their staffs use social media such as Facebook and blogs after work can be harnessed to improve their job performance.

What impact does this have on working practices?
Carstensen: Social networks, wikis and Google docs provide the appropriate technological support for networked, self-organized and independent work. They further stimulate the transformation of working procedures that has been underway for many years now. Employees are becoming more autonomous. They are expected to act as if each were entrepreneurial, even if they have permanent positions. While this opens up space for creativity, it also encourages self-exploitation. Working on defined projects, employees must decide for themselves how to attain the goals set for them, and how to cope with the workload. All this increases the pressure to succeed and social media further exacerbates this. Furthermore, companies now expect that staff be passionately devoted to their jobs, and be willing to invest all their drive and creativity in achieving their goals. The individual personality must be discernible.

So it’s not enough to do good work. The results must be exhibited online?
Carstensen: In the past, in order to be noticed, employees needed only to impress at meetings or in conversations in the corridor. Now they are expected to put on a good show on digital media. Platforms like Xing and Twitter, and blogs all say: ‘Express yourself! Show everyone what you know and what you can do!’

How do employees react to that?
Carstensen: Lots of people love it, and enjoy the interactions and the opportunity to make a mark – the chance to get positive feedback and recognition is one of the positive effects of Web 2.0 technologies. Others are very careful of what they post online, not least because they are aware of the fact that their every contribution may remain accessible for years, and could at some time come back to haunt them. And these differences in individuals’ attitudes lead to digital divides within firms.

Does this mean that knowing how to make a good impression online is becoming a crucial part of the job?
Carstensen: It’s more a matter of defining one’s relationship with the public sphere, and deciding what does and doesn’t belong there. Most people have in their mind’s eye a picture of the executive who is ‘googling’ his staff. Before posting anything on the Internet, they use the censor in one’s brain. Ask yourself how much of this is private and how much professional? What should I send by e-mail or WhatsApp, and what can I share with a larger circle?

Have new media altered the relationship between one’s professional and private life?
Carstensen: At all events they promote the further dissolution of the boundaries between the two. Here Facebook is the crucial factor, because the platform is used for both private and professional concerns and exchanges, and because employers have been known to suggest that their employees might, in their capacity as private individuals, consider contributing something positive to the company’s Facebook page – by recommending one of its products, for instance. From the company’s point of view, this is a good marketing strategy. It gives them a more authentic image. Many people identify themselves strongly with their employer and are quite happy to do this sort of thing. Others would find such a suggestion impertinent, and separate their professional from their private contacts on Facebook. By doing so, they can ensure that their acquaintances receive no informal advertising commissions.

Mobile devices and apps mean that we are accessible virtually all the time – always on the job, as it were.
Carstensen: One effect of this is that employees develop ways of limiting their accessibility. There is more and more talk of a right to unreachability, and some companies have actually put this into practice. Presence indicators in social networks, which allow everyone to see when and how long someone is on the job, can be deactivated. In addition to relieving the stress of having to be permanently accessible, that avoids the often highly disruptive interruptions that this entails. And it demonstrates that digital technologies can be adapted to individual needs.

Many companies now set up their own social media platforms. What effects do they have on work practices?
Carstensen: Companies expected their own social networks to provide a transparent online culture which would facilitate free exchange and increase productivity. But these hopes have been disappointed. They still hope e-mail traffic can be reduced by enabling employees to use these platforms autonomously and independently of location. This may work in many cases, but it’s obvious that hierarchically structured organizations don’t work like that. No one is going to write down the first thing that comes into his head. Even doing so in private exchanges on Facebook is more risky than it looks, and in the business world it is even more complicated. Employees adopt a more strategic approach: What should I tell them and what should I keep to myself? What are the bosses likely to think of this, and what will my colleagues make of it?

Do these media increase the workload?
Carstensen: At the moment, certainly. Of course there are some sectors – start-ups for example – where social media are part of the company’s self-image and reduce workload. But big firms especially have large numbers of employees, many of whom do not otherwise use social media. Getting to know these new forms of communication is more laborious for them, and comes on top of what they have to do anyway. This suggests that the introduction of more technology is more likely to increase the burden of stress and overwork. In addition, there is the fear that the data will be analyzed and that bosses will simply tot up the ‘Likes’. In some firms, employees’ representatives have negotiated agreements which prohibit tracking of the activities of employees in the company’s digital network. But it is challenging to prevent such practices from being adopted generally.

How do you see our relationship with social media developing, specifically in the context of work?
Carstensen: I believe the significance of social media and digitalization in the world of work will continue to grow, and it will foster an inversion of responsibility. Instead of receiving directives by e-mail, the individual worker has to collect the required background information herself. This increases the demand for self-organization and autonomy. And while this will increase job satisfaction for some, others will see it as imposing yet more pressure. Internal networks will become less important. Everyone who works on a given project will have access to the relevant information, irrespective of his or her status or location. This makes outsourcing easier for firms, and their own contours become ever more nebulous. And all this raises the stakes for personnel, as those in permanent positions compete against freelancers.

Interviewer: Nicola Holzapfel

Dr. Tanja Carstensen is a staff member of the Institute of Sociology at LMU.