Welcome to the future of office, Facebook at Work

fbThe recent, formal launch of Facebook at Work has invited a lot of opinions already. There are people who are looking forward to what it can do over and above office collaboration tools (like Alan Lepovsky’s perspective) like Yammer and there are people who think it is a pointless launch (my friend, Gautam Ghosh’s point of view). And then there are those who portend utter doom with this launch – here’s one eloquently articulated piece from Oliver Burkeman of The Guardian.

Here are some fundamentals that I think are worth recalling, in context.

1. The workplace has changed. Or, is changing, very fast.

Facebook, and Twitter, if you have a job that doesn’t depend on them (journalists, social media folks, PR agencies etc.) used to be the kind of momentary distractions that you indulge in *between* work. And to not lose it completely.

Earlier, we used to go out for a smoke (Indians still do, a LOT). Then, we had those ‘water-coolers’. Many start-ups added things like Foosball tables and dartboards in office, as distractions, to unwind. Bigger tech. organizations like Google and Facebook scaled them up considerably by throwing everything and the kitchen sink into the workplace.

Now, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and so on are necessary evils in a work place. They are supposed to be used sparingly, to indulge occasionally, and some companies even benefit from employees’ usage of these social media platforms – HR is happy that the employee-friendly policies and features are being shared with the world!

So, using Facebook, while at work, isn’t frowned upon anymore, by and large. Unless you are an Indian technology company who still believes in banning social media platforms during ‘office hours’.

In this context, comes Facebook at Work. The irony is that you already are ‘friends’ with a lot of your colleagues, ex and current. But you silo, in your head, about what you discuss with them on Facebook and what you do, on say, office mail! Do you really need a silo anymore? Think about it.

2. From ‘I work for’ to ‘I work with’

This is a pet topic of mine. Increasingly, your work is less tied to your identity. Or, in other words, you are not where you work – you have an identity beyond where you work.

So, beyond, ‘Oh, that Infosys guy?’ to ‘Oh, that fitness fanatic runner from our gym?’.

The former label was the default for many years, because we had explicit manifestations of it readily, like business cards. With social media, we had an opportunity to reclaim our individual identities and the smarter ones built on it. So, if you were a runner, you not only ran, but also connected with other runners, online. You shared pics of you running. You collaborated with other runners across the globe. All this is content online and the more you shared such content, the more you subconsciously built your association with it that competes with your other work-related identity.

So, instead of ‘I work for…’ (or, at), which perhaps symbolizes a more stringent nature of a master and a servant, the workplace assumes the nature of a stream of professional activity that you dip in and out. So, ‘I work with…’.

This change, in a way, was enabled by the opening of social media and how it helped us reclaim our identity – at least for those who chose to make use of that part of social media, consciously.

So, social media at work is nothing really new. It’s just an extension of your personality and what you share online, personal or professonal has a bearing on you, as a person. Some of it accumulates towards your professional self and some of it towards your personal self. For some unfortunate souls like me, there’s no personal or professional anymore since the line of work IS social media.

And which platform dominates social media? Facebook.

Facebook at work, in that sense, seems merely like a new labelling exercise to formalize the connection that already has been brewing in the background.

3. What you share vs. what you choose to share

You fake a cold, tell your colleagues/boss about it, skip work. Then you go to a movie and post a status update (on Facebook, Twitter, it doesn’t matter where). Who would you blame if your colleagues or boss saw it?

Facebook and Twitter? Hah – tough chance! You should be blaming yourself, right?

So, now that those nuances are clear enough in the minds of most people (sane, smart ones, at least – if you still do it assuming there are smaller, subgroups online that you can be private, you’re just massively foolish), we are increasingly aware that what we share online is more or less a stream of our real lives. Even here, you can choose to portray things in a way that builds a narrative of your life, without faking it.

For example, you could be busy at work. You look outside the window for a minute, see a squirrel doing something incredibly cute (they always do!), take a quick pic and share it on Facebook with a sensitive comment that alludes to the minor distraction you had at work that moment.

That sends a couple of signals – one, you are busy at work, in your office. Two, you have a ledge outside your office that has a squirrel. Three, you are capable to taking decent pics. Four, you are capable of looking at life’s little joys. Five, you are capable of articulating life’s little joys as interesting stories.

Now, if you send 10 such updates online in a single hour, your boss and colleagues are going to pissed, understandably. If you do once a day, you’re perhaps building quite a nice image of yourself as a sensitive and observant individual. In essence, your life’s narrative is in your hands – the way you build it and the way you share it on social media.

There is no reason why the squirrel cannot be replaced with a fantastic piece of code you created that day at work. Or a great powerpoint deck you made the other day! The effect is largely the same, but attracts a different set of audiences.

4. One-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-many

Many-to-many is the hallmark of social media. Many-to-many, in a way, defines social media. From that point of view, Whatsapp or Snapchat is hardly social media – it is just a better, glorified version of email or text messaging – far more intuitive and easier to use and adopt.

Twitter is perhaps the complete and true embodiment of many-to-many, given its no-walled-garden approach, unlike Facebook. But Facebook too is by and large many-to-many despite the clunky walls they help people build around themselves in some vague nation of privacy.

Email is the extreme opposite – a walled garden like no other. And you get to build walls. We end up building so many walls that when someone breaks the walls, it becomes great amusement – yes, I’m referring to the dreaded ‘Reply All’ stories.

But, if you imagine a flat, cabin-less organization, like most of today’s start-ups, a many-to-many platform lets you implement the flatness in the organization even in spirit, not just in office space.

Many office collaboration tools already offer this. Every piece of content shared within the office is not seen as mail and files, but as part of a master message board. Some of the threads are access-locked to some folks, depending on permission, hierarchy, privacy, confidentiality etc.

But the problem with office collaboration tools is that they are new tools and they have a learning curve. Facebook, on the other hand, is extremely familiar, as a system, to a billion+ people! So, extending the interface to conduct ‘work’ is perhaps a killer idea!

At least philosophically, Facebook at Work is a great step ahead for Facebook. People will crib about privacy (or the lack of it), Facebook using the data for advertising and so on, but it is perhaps the most logical step ahead for Facebook. The question about privacy is a running gag around Facebook anyway – if you wished for something to be private, you’d share that pic on email, not on your wall. Or, better still, take a physical copy of it and send it on good old snail mail. You subconsciously are ok with it being circulated to a larger group outside the one it is intended for, if you post it within a group, on Facebook – that’s the harsh truth you should have already learnt going by Facebook’s ongoing updates to its timeline and algorithm. If you haven’t and consider some utopian state of privacy on social media, may I ask you to snap out of it, please?

What remains to be seen is the operational execution of Facebook at Work. If it is as seasmless as,
– search for your colleagues on Facebook (LinkedIn does it darn well, now and Facebook is fairly terrible at! But people share *far less* on LinkedIn!!)
– connect with them using a new bridge (a terminology for a group)
– start talking…

…then, I assume people will take to it as fast as they took to stopping mailing a photo to someone and instead Whatsapp’ed it.

In the current scheme of things, the ways one can be reached in an office include land line (increasingly outdated), mobile phone, email, text message + whatsapp, LinkedIn InMail, Skype and so on. Some of these tools tell you whether the person is *available* at that moment or not. For example, you can send a text message and if you do not get a response within say, 5 minutes, you can go ahead and assume anything you want about how busy that person is.

But if you Whatsapp’ed her, for example, then you’d get those colored double-ticks to at least indicate that your message ‘has been seen’ (mimicing the mail read-reciept, I suppose!). And then you assume what you want – it still is one step forward, theoritically.

Guess what? Facebook’s Messenger app also introduced this feature recently, given Whatsapp belongs to Facebook anyway. And both connect to your mobile phone’s contacts too, which also houses your colleagues’ phone numbers.

See how it all comes together? I see this as a play that is ready for Facebook, on a platter. It is for Facebook to lose, depending on how they build the work flow and execution. Otherwise, they have it all set, and in a significantly better platform (based on traction and usage) than LinkedIn!

Pic courtesy, Phil Szomszor’s point of view on Facebook at Work!