What keeps an employee productive? A new survey suggests that for HR leaders, workplace productivity is something to be protected from the creeping time suck of Facebook and Twitter.

Jointly conducted by Holos Research and MySammy–a “productivity measurement” firm with a clear interest in closely monitoring employee behavior–the survey of 158 HR professionals was designed to explore how HR feels about social media in the workplace. Results show how deeply fearful HR leaders are about two social media risks: inevitable security breaches and the potential loss of employee time to these infernal, newfangled distractions. Some notable findings:

  • The two biggest factors that lead firms to block access to social media websites are “security threats” (77% important) and “decreased productivity for employees” (67% important)
  • 76% of respondents expressed concern that employees are using social media to harm their reputation
  • More than 3 in 4 believe that social media hurts employee productivity, yet they have no way of knowing by how much
  • More than half (54%) feel that social media is useful for employees to perform their duties.
  • Almost all respondents’ companies (87%) allowed their employees to bring their own smartphone to work (devices that make it infinitely easier, by the way, to circumvent those pesky company firewalls)

I understand why HR leaders worry, but I don’t completely agree that social media is either an overwhelming security threat or a black hole for productivity.

Security is a matter of trust

When it comes to security, we at Gagen MacDonald often remind our clients that social media is just another communication vehicle connecting employees to the outside world—not unlike email, the telephone, or even casual conversations on the street. Each one of these vehicles offers infinite opportunities for employees to share information they should keep to themselves. For reasons both reasonable and not, HR professionals see social media security breaches as somehow more threatening or more likely than security leaks through other “traditional” communication vehicles. Does that make sense? After all, your room may have a window and a door, but if you’re worried about your cat getting out, it can escape through both openings. The only difference between them is that one has a knob and a hinge.

Instead of seeing social media as inherently less secure, we counsel clients to weigh the costs and benefits of social media access at work. By allowing access to social media—with rational limits and well-understood guidelines—employers often send the message that they trust their employees to use communication tools responsibly. That sentiment resonates more than some HR professionals may realize. When employees feel more trusted by their employers, they often feel more engaged—which means they’re also more likely to perceive their own contributions to the company’s bottom line. An engaged employee is also less likely to do something that might undermine the company’s well-being.

Counterintuitively, then, you could make an argument that social media access has the potential to make a workplace more secure, at least to the extent that it makes employees feel more engaged by signaling the company’s confidence and trust. This notion is reflected in some of our own research, which shows that within those companies that successfully use internal social media tools (Yammer, Chatter etc.), employees are 60% more likely to give their employer the benefit of the doubt during a crisis, 67% more likely to support government policies that their company supports, and 39% more likely to recommend their company’s products and services to friends and families outside of the company. In general, we’re seeing in our research that social media can be a powerful tool for empowering employees to become eager and proactive brand ambassadors willing to share ownership of their company’s reputation.

So as an HR leader, you need to ask yourself: do we risk undermining a sense of trust and transparency when we shut down or curtail social media access? Are we sending a no-confidence message to our people when we put (largely ineffective) firewalls around the communications they can access at work?

Productivity isn’t just time spent, it’s time saved

On the question of productivity, our research also shows that employees feel that certain kinds of social media access adds to their productivity, particularly when they use this media to connect with their coworkers and teams. In fact, our most recent survey shows that 61% of employees feel that social media tools in the workplace make it easier to collaborate with their colleagues. This is not to suggest that posting LOLcats on Facebook is a constructive use of time. But as anyone who’s worked with a social media-savvy colleague can attest, some of our most productive employees are using the tips and tricks they’ve learned from Facebook and Twitter to improve the way they build teams, search for information or contribute to information ecosystems where data is much easier to search and find. In fact, the “smartest” workplaces today are those that use user-built profiles and Twitter-like hashtags to help employees identify people inside the company with key expertise–the kind of expertise that leaves a trail of searchable conversations around new ideas and concepts.

The bottom line is this: as an HR executive, it’s easy to focus on your fears, but a more rational and constructive approach is to weigh the costs against the benefits of social media in the workplace. Social media may offer a new window for security breaches, and it may occupy some time and employee mindshare during the day. But do these threats outweigh the benefits of moderated social media access? Gagen MacDonald’s research and client experiences say emphatically no.