Are social tools used by optimists, or do they make optimists?

A new report from Google reveals how social media is used in the workplace.

There's a strong correlation between business and personal optimism, and use of social tools in the workplace, according to a new report from Google and Millward Brown.

After interviewing 2,700 professionals from the UK, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden, the researchers found that frequent users of social tools at work are:

  • Happier in their jobs. 38 per cent are very satisfied with their jobs, compared to 18 per cent of non-users
  • More successful. 86 per cent have recently been promoted, compared to 61 per cent of non-users
  • In faster growing companies. Frequent users of social tools are more than twice as likely to be working in high growth companies compared to non-users.
  • More optimistic about their future growth. 59 per cent expect the performance of their company to improve over the next year, compared to 38 per cent of non-users.

Sadly, Google and Millward Brown don't unpick the most interesting part of these findings, which is the direction of causality involved. Clearly the internet services giant has a vested interest in pushing the idea that using social tools will make you happier, more successful, and more productive; but it would be an equally interesting finding if it were the case that people who are optimistic, both about their own prospects and their businesses.

Similarly, Google will want to emphasise the idea that social tools may help your company grow faster, but an alternative causal story may be that fast growing companies have more freedom to experiment with new technologies and work styles than those which are struggling to stay afloat.

Thomas Davies, the head of Google Enterprise in the UK, argued that adoption of social tools in the workplace wasn't an if, so much as a when, and that as such, what is important for Google and other purveyors of such tools is to understand the where and the why of social adoption. He added:

It won't be long before sharing online is as natural in our business lives as it is in our personal ones. . . Having the ability to find the people and information you want faster speeds up the decision-making process allowing businesses to be more agile and competitive.

Also present at the report's launch was Matt Knight, Ocado's marketing chief. Discussing the online supermarket's social strategy, he described how the company, which now has 5000 employees spread over 10 sites, deliberately attempts to retain the manoeuvrability it had as a smaller company. They had great success with an internal wiki, and 18 months ago, switched their company to Google's enterprise tools. Knight also spoke about the company's consumer facing social media strategy, which, frankly, seemed a lot more barebones.

Ocado, like so many companies, seems to know it ought to be using social media to interact with customers, but doesn't really know why. Ten per cent of Ocado's customers follow them on Facebook, and Knight envisaged a situation where a customer could "like" an individual product, but there was little vocalisation of what this would bring the supermarket. Whether social media is publicity, marketing, sales or something else entirely, it seems clear that internal tools are used in a far more result-driven manner than external ones.

One correlation which Google weren't so keen to highlight: The two countries in the study which are the most enthusiastic users of social tools? Spain and Italy, with 74 per cent of respondents eager to use them. Meanwhile, the least enthusiastic was Germany, where just 53 per cent. Linking those figures up with the macroeconomic state of those countries doesn't paint quite such a rosy view.

Businessmen utilising social tools outside of the office environment. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA