Social networking (SN) has entered the daily lives of electrical estimators, bringing a new level of distraction to an already complicated workday. Electrical contractors (ECs) should be aware of what this brings to their business: interruptions, addictions, wasted time and potentially sensitive security issues.

With a click of the mouse, I can connect myself to thousands of industry professionals on the Internet. SN experts tell me this is a great tool for marketing and sales teams, even project managers. Perhaps, but from the view of a business owner and chief estimator who has observed employees (and himself) engaging in this “social” activity, I have serious concerns.

The last thing an EC needs is estimators taking time from their overbooked workday to develop their personal social network. What they do on their time is their business, but while they are at work, getting paid, they should be 100 percent focused on their projects.

Questions should be asked: What exactly is SN doing for your business(es) and productivity? Who does SN benefit? The company? Estimators? Sales reps? Headhunters? Does SN have a real, profitable function for an estimating department? Or is it just another interruption in the already busy workday of an estimator?

LinkingIn to tweet on Facebook

Twitter and Facebook are two of the best-known social-networking sites. Both are quick, limited-text ways of posting thoughts, photos, Web links and ever-so-clever haikus—most of which have nothing to do with business. Some users might argue, “It barely takes any time to post something!” But the concern is not how long each individual “tweet” takes. It’s more in the total accumulation of Twitter time during the entire day, which includes browsing, reading posts and replying to them.

These SN platforms are tempting. Once the user reads and reacts to something, the time wasting has begun. The user follows the link, contacts the person who posted to comment and it goes on.

There also is the interruption of other pop-up chat platforms, such as Skype (I love it!), AOL Instant Messenger, Windows Messenger, Yahoo Messenger and a host of others. These irresistible chats automatically appear when your “buddies” see you are online and can create a major distraction during counting.

But what about LinkedIn? It is business-oriented and can be productively used to share educational information, discussions, industry--specific news and reports. Mostly, it provides a fantastic platform for “peer-to-peer networking” and employment opportunities (headhunters), which potentially adds the danger of losing your employees.

What to do about all this ado?

As a chief estimator, I pay attention to productivity issues and am concerned about the interruption social networks bring to my estimating department. We already have the continuing interruption of personal calls and text messages on cell phones, plus the addictive attraction of the Internet. Now we’ve added another layer of distraction.

I believe this should raise concern, especially during economic times in which the level of productivity can make or break a struggling business.

There also are serious legal considerations to be made. E-mail is legally considered official business communication. This includes chats, text messages, tweets and any other written conversation. A protocol of how and when employees should use it for your business should be established. Additionally, a protocol as to how your company is saving and securing the legal content of these conversations should be implemented.

For all my negative talk and fear mongering, there is an equal amount of good stuff. Text messaging and chatting can be a very productive way to multitask, stay in touch on projects, etc. It can be more efficient than writing and sending e-mails. So to simply dismiss it entirely would be ignorant.

But be aware: your estimators are now connected to and talking with other estimators, employers and possibly competitors. The door is open wider to the sharing of proprietary data and knowledge with people outside of your company. This can be very damaging to your business. What protocols should you establish?

To the owners and chief estimators reading this, I highly recommend keeping a watchful eye on your work force. You may be a bit shocked by what you see and how much time you realize is being lost each day. Some new policies may need to be put in place.

For the estimators reading this who think, “Gee, Stan, thanks for ruining a good thing,” I simply say leave the social surfing at home and get back to work. After all, it is called “work,” not “play.”

In today’s tight economy, productivity will be a key factor to your company’s survival. If you are at all concerned about keeping your job, you need to be super-productive. However, if social networking is actually helping your company gain new clients, bring in work and manage projects, then by all means Twitter the day away!

SHOOK is the president and chief estimator for his estimating company, TakeOff 16 Inc. He has worked in the electrical construction industry for more than 18 years. Reach him at 707.776.0800 and sfs@TakeOff16.com.