Last reviewed 31 January 2018

The world wide web was only made available to the general public in 1991 — a mere 26 years ago. Already, however, it is not easy to remember life without it. More than that, it is now difficult to work out what area of our lives is not impacted upon in some way by the internet and the world wide web. For most of us, our work lives have some form of connection with the internet, for others, our work life is only possible because of it. Here Gudrun Limbrick examines the connection.

Social media has been one of the unexpected outcomes of the development of the internet. Presumably not even Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, could have foreseen how many of us would have a portion of our social lives, if not the majority of our social interactions, carried out online. From dating, to special interest discussions, to community news and communicating with family members, online activity is of great significance. The question is, are we in danger of allowing our social media to blur our home lives and our work lives to an extent that impacts negatively on both?

Our work lives and social lives have long been interlinked. It would be very unfair to blame social media for this, as it happened to some degree many decades ago. Work has always taken up a large amount of our waking hours — more so a hundred years ago than today in many cases. Thus, we have often relied on work colleagues for our social lives. We have befriended work colleagues, we have found romance and affairs at work, and we have often merged work and home by introducing colleagues to our friends and families. We have also chosen to stay in touch with some colleagues long after we have left the mutual place of work.

With social media, this form of interaction is, arguably, less easy to control than deciding which colleagues remain on your Christmas card list after you have moved onto another job. Facebook, the form of social media from which all other social media spawned, has been in our lives since 2004. It is now used more than once a day by 44% of the UK online population. This is a remarkable statistic that is, in itself, anticipated to increase and is also joined by those who choose a different form of social media, such as Twitter. There can be an expectation that colleagues will become Facebook friends, or followers on Twitter or other social media. It can be difficult to turn people down in this way without offending them or making it seem like you have something to hide.

In this way, we become interlinked on social media which means that colleagues, employers and others connected with our work lives suddenly can be made aware of what goes on in our private lives with it becoming difficult to hide our own points of view, events attended and other friends. It may be that there is nothing in particular that you want to hide (such as taking off on holiday when you are signed off sick, belonging to ethically questionable political groups, or swearing about the body odour of your colleagues) but it may mean that you share more than you would ever want to with the people with whom you work. For example, your social media may be filled with geeky conversations with your fellow train-spotters and you don’t particularly want your go-getting colleagues to know about this side of your personality.

The simple act of making connections with work colleagues through social media can mean that we have to work hard to present the right sort of image of ourselves through social media which was previously just filled with hilarious videos of kittens falling over and memes about housework.

This can go further however. Many of us spend time on social media as part of our work role, perhaps promoting the business, interacting with customers, or searching for information about the market. Many of us do this using our own personal social media accounts because of the difficulties inherent in creating second accounts. For employers, this might mean that employees can be tempted by distractions on their private accounts while they are working, but more significantly, it can leave employees unable to switch off as our personal social media is inextricably linked with our work. For example, going onto Twitter on a Friday evening to post a video of a puppy learning to climb stairs can mean that you catch sight of a work competitor’s tweets which really need an urgent response. It may seem a small matter but Friday evening relaxation may now be entirely over. Likewise, a customer may have sent a message about a complaint which you know no one will deal with until Monday morning leaving you tempted to send a reply immediately.

The problem can be exacerbated for people working from home or those who are self-employed. If the same mobile phone, laptop or tablet is used for both work and home, it is near impossible to ignore work messages during home time, and vice versa. While we can choose not to answer a work phone or to open up our work email server, it is far more difficult to look only at personal social media and ignore work-related social media.

The problem with this blurring is three-fold. The first is that we all deserve a private life. We may have to present a particular persona while we are at work and representing work but we are allowed to do whatever we like privately, including laughing out loud at funny cat videos without worrying about what our colleagues, bosses and customers might think of us as a result.

The second is that we are all entitled to time off work. More than that, we all need time off work. If, whenever, we like to use social media for all aspects of our lives but we are faced with work-related matters as soon as we log on, we are not going to get the respite we need. And we are certainly not going to receive the remuneration we deserve for the open-ended time we are spending on work.

The third problem is that we are always going to be tempted to tackle work issues on social media while we are at home. This could mean that we get into a conversation with a customer after we have had a glass of wine, or when we don’t have access to all the information we need, or when we are distracted by the kids or the cats or the massive party going on around us. In this way, while we mean well, the quality of our work may suffer.

As a matter of some urgency, many of us must consider how we can reconfigure work social media life to separate it from private social media life. This may be as simple as setting up specific accounts for Facebook, Twitter, etc, so that personal accounts do not have to be used. It may be a company-wide rule that colleagues do not become Facebook friends. It is only in this manner that we can begin the process of unblurring — restoring our private lives and making our free time genuinely free of work.