Housing and care staff require clear guidelines for social media use

Enthusiastic staff who embrace Twitter are often not supported by their employers and left unsure of what they can share

This blog originally appeared on the Guardian.co.uk

Housing and care staff are finding Twitter a very useful tool, but the lack of guidelines for staff usage is leaving employees feeling vulnerable about what they can say. This is what I’ve learned recently from speaking to various people from different organisations. They told me about what they use Twitter for, the risks, the rewards and why all organisations need a policy and guidelines for social media use.

The other day I tweeted an appeal for frontline housing and care staff to get in touch. Within minutes, I’d made contact with around 30 Twitter users and I asked whether I could email them a handful of questions about how and why they use Twitter, and whether they find it useful for work.

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone I spoke to said they find it useful for their work. They follow national, local, housing and care news, policymakers, and other people in similar jobs and organisations and use Twitter to keep up with what’s happening in their field, as it happens.

Twitter allows staff to highlight useful links, share information, read and circulate relevant news, identify and follow others doing similar jobs to discuss ideas, issues and best practice. Several people said the most valuable aspect of Twitter is building an online network of professional contacts for help and support.

Twitter is essentially just a vehicle for conversation and networking. Everyone uses it in their own way. One respondent said it’s their most valuable research tool, another uses it to follow what’s happening at events he can’t attend. One person said that Twitter generates the most up-to-date information available so it’s great for local news and traffic updates. Several people noted that Twitter enables you to raise your professional profile, to build partnerships and identify potential collaborators.

Almost everyone said they use Twitter every day. Most keep it open in the background, ready to dip into periodically. People multi-task with Twitter so it doesn’t replace other activities but integrates with the way they work. Most use it both on their computer and smartphone, and several highlighted how useful it is while out and about.

When asked what they tweet the majority of staff said their tweets reflect their timelines; they see tweets from people they’re following and retweet them, respond or comment on them. Most people tweet links to national, local or trade news and blogs. Others search hashtags such as #ukhousing and #ukcare to find information to tweet. One care worker said she thought only about 80% of her tweets were about work because “it’s important I am more than simply my job title”.

Interestingly, all respondents noted that few (if any) work colleagues also use Twitter, and most organisations still don’t have a policy or guidelines for social media use among staff. It seems that while the housing and care staff who use Twitter are enthusiastic about its potential as a professional tool, they are woefully unsupported by their employers.

Two of the people surveyed said they use Twitter anonymously, declaring their job roles but withholding their names and their employers, for fear of potential backlash. One said that while she always tweets as if her manager was reading it, there are no guidelines for using Twitter where she works so she feels “very vulnerable”.

At the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, we have guidelines that encourage staff to use social media in useful ways and make suggestions for best practice. Here are some Twitter tips for housing and care staff, from housing and care staff:

• Be nice! Have the confidence to be who you are but always try to be polite.

• Stick with it. Don’t get discouraged while you’re finding your feet – you’ll have to experiment before to find out how Twitter works for you.

• Keep trying different approaches. As with all social media, be prepared for people to disagree with you and remember that this is OK. You cannot ignore the other side of the argument.

• Engage on a human level – if you just tweet corporate messages, no one will follow you.

• Enjoy it!

James Grant is the social media and digital inclusion officer at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust

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