Hands up who remembers when email first took hold in the 90s?  It’s hard now to imagine life without it – but there was a time when it was all a bit scary and not everyone thought the speed and immediacy it brought to business life was necessarily a good thing.

Fast-forward to 2013 and if the technology pundits are to be believed, we are on the brink of another workplace communication revolution.  Social tools – technology-enabled platforms which allow employees to communicate and collaborate across boundaries and in real time – are being widely lauded as the next big thing.

The latest research from Microsoft suggests that employees have been quick to appreciate the benefits of the new, more connected, way of working. In a recent global poll, nearly half of employees surveyed said social tools helped to increase their productivity, while 40 per cent believed they encouraged better teamwork.

Yet despite the thumbs-up from staff, a significant proportion of  companies didn’t recognise the value of these tools. Now, given the widely publicised issues with social media, this finding is maybe not that surprising.  But social tools are unlikely to go away – and, since companies have much to gain from them, it makes sense for HR and business managers to find a way benefits from this more social and collaborative way of working.

The new social tools are also an important weapon in the war for talent.   The young people entering the workforce now are digital natives.  They expect to be able to build networks, share ideas openly and collaborate with people both in and outside the business – and are frankly quite bemused when they join a new employer and find they are not able to work in a way that is second nature to them.

The very latest generation of HR software solutions are beginning to incorporate social HR features into their systems that put collaboration at the heart of what they do. Cezanne OnDemand, for example, includes social workspaces, areas where employees can share ideas and documents away from the distractions of Facebook and Twitter.

Here are five reasons why companies should start to embrace the new social tools.

Encouraging collaboration

Technology has made it much easier for employees to join forces and collaborate – within their teams, across departments, over global boundaries or even with peers outside the business.  A dispersed sales team, for example, might want to work together on a new pitch or maybe HR needs to collaborate with line managers on planned changes to the performance management process.  Social tools allow collaboration to take place anytime, anywhere on an ongoing basis, rather than as a one-off event.  Of course it also makes it easier for a wider group of people to be involved.  There’s no need to get everyone together in the room.  Users can simply log on and feed their ideas into the pot when it suits them or when inspiration strikes.

Inviting feedback

It used to be that the annual staff survey was the only feedback a business got from its employees.  Social tools, however, have shifted feedback from a static, isolated event into a continuous two-way street.  It’s a great way for companies to ‘take the temperature’ when they are undergoing change or introducing new initiatives.  They can get instant feedback on their plans and are much better able to tackle any anxieties people may have head-on or to nip potential problems in the bud.  It’s also a great way to pick up on previously unforeseen issues with a new product or service.  Front-line staff are often the people who know best what will or won’t work and their feedback can be hugely valuable when it comes to fine-tuning an offering or avoiding pitfalls.

Building engagement

Social tools can play a huge role in helping employees feel more engaged with the business.  This is not just an issue for large organisations.  One of the biggest problems facing SMEs as they grow is retaining the ‘family’ feel of the early days and making people feel they are still an important part of taking the business forward.  Internal social platforms allow the business to keep everyone up-to-speed with what’s going on and to invite their ideas.  But they can also be a great tool for getting people involved in corporate social responsibility initiatives – seeking volunteers to help with a local charity project for example, or generating excitement and involvement around a plan to make the business more environmentally friendly.  Research has shown that staff who are engaged are more productive, motivated and loyal to their employer – so if there are tools out there that can help you achieve that, using them makes sound business sense.

Communicating clearly

Making sure all employees are kept in the loop with company news and information is always a challenge.  Emails languish unread in over-flowing in-boxes and people are constantly surprised by developments the business thinks it has clearly communicated.  The latest social platforms provide a place where everyone can access company-wide announcements and important HR policies and documents.  It’s a great way for the business to ensure everyone has access to what they need to know – regardless of where they may be based or how busy they may be.

Supporting virtual workers

Thanks to advances in technology and the breaking down of global boundaries, it’s becoming increasingly common for companies of all sizes to have people working remotely – whether that’s from a home base or on the other side of the world.  Recent research has suggested that although businesses have embraced the concept of virtual working, they still have some way to go when it comes to effectively supporting dispersed teams of employees.  Internal social platforms provide a mechanism for bringing people together, combating isolation and making everyone feel part of the team, regardless of where they may be based.  They allow managers to communicate regularly with their people and coach them through projects and give remote workers a space where they can share their experiences, take part in team discussions and seek advice and encouragement from colleagues.

Are you using social tools in your business?  Let us know how they are supporting your growth and improving productivity.

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.