How Social Media Reveals Invisible Work

by cv harquail on January 27, 2011

Social Media helps us get work done. And, Social Media has a unique ability to show us something about how we get work done that we often overlook. It allows us to see both conventional work and “invisible work”.

What is invisible work?

Invisible work includes all kinds of energy and tasks that contribute to achieving organizational goals but that happen offstage, are done by people who we don’t pay attention to, or aren’t recognized as ‘work’.201101271615.jpg

When work is invisible, we don’t see how it contributes to results, how much effort it takes to perform, or how much skill it takes to do this invisible work well. We fail to appreciate what this invisible work contributes, and we fail to value it. And yet, without this invisible work, the effort behind it, and the people who perform it, we’d be hard-pressed to achieve much at all.

Social Media Reveals Relational Work

One of the most common forms of invisible work is ‘relational work‘ — all that effort we put into creating, sustaining and transforming relationships. This social, psychological, interpersonal, and emotional work is critical to our ability to contribute to the bottom line in an organization.

[Consider how, when it comes to performance reviews, we’re rarely able to provide examples of this kind of work. We have examples of “concrete” task-y work that we’ve got done–wire frames, spreadsheets, sales calls–but we are less able to show a track record of the invisible work that made this other work possible.]

Now that social media — tools like Twitter, Yammer, SocialCast, Hashable— lets us see and track interactions between people, we can also see what’s going on in these relationships. These tools show us when a person is reaching out to someone, making introductions, recognizing others, affirming them, and more.

Social Media shows us not only who is connecting with whom, but also what they’re sending across that connection. We can see if people are sharing links, offering suggestions, making introductions, or offering positive words.

Beyond basic relationship-building actions, we can see people engaging in the absolute best and most difficult kinds of relational work. We can see them creating work relationships that foster the growth of the individuals in the relationship, the growth of the relational network, and the flourishing of the organization itself.

Relational Work Takes Effort and Skill

Growth-oriented relationships require real skill to build and to maintain. With social media, we can watch as people demonstrate skills like listening closely, acknowledging vulnerability, experiencing and expressing emotion, participating in the development of another, and managing mutual expectations.


Social Media brings into the light the invisible work that goes into nurturing, supporting, encouraging and facilitating the behavior of others.

Once we see this relational work, we can begin

  • To see the value of this work,
  • To see those who do so this work, and
  • To value those who do this work.

Even better, we can learn from the people who contribute relational work to make our own work relationships stronger, more productive and more generative.

Social media itself doesn’t build relationships; we do. However, social media builds our ability to appreciate relationships and the skill the require.

Social Media helps us see the amount, the qualities, and the source of strong relationships, helping us value the work and the people who do it.

See also:

Images: Invisible from Daniel*1977, Je suis toujours invisible from Perfesser

Daniels, A. K. (1987) Invisible Work,
Social Problems, 34 (5).
Fletcher, J. (1999)
Disappearing Acts: Gender, Power, and Relational Practice at Work. The MIT Press.


Rotkapchen January 27, 2011 at 5:54 pm

Sounds vaguely like the conversations we’ve been having around “observable work” or #owork

cv harquail January 27, 2011 at 6:07 pm

Ooh, thanks for the head’s up and the link to those conversations
I wonder if ‘observable work’ is an intentional (positive) renaming of invisible work, or something that popped up on its own. There is a 35 yr. history of research on ‘invisible work’ per se, much of it from a feminist / gender perspective. … I didn’t site this (since it’s a blog post and not a research paper) or really even mention it, but of course it informs my thinking. I’m excited to read the ‘observable’ perspective now.
Thanks again- cv

Jennifer Johnston Canfield January 30, 2011 at 1:10 pm

Great insights, CV…Totally with you!

John Tropea May 23, 2011 at 12:49 am

Found your post via your comment on Oscar Berg’s post on Tiny work…

Sounds similar to the concept of observable work

Observable work is a trail that’s left behind when doing work…we usually don’t see this as it’s in IM, email, meeting, buried documents.

When doing this in online social networks, we may ask questions or answer questions, meet new people, find new collaborations. So a spin off of observable work is the relationship part.

I view this from a KM perspective in that we now can document the workings out…all the conversations that contributed to all those decisions that you read in a report. Now when someone asks why was this decision made in page 2 paragraph 3, we can perhaps go back to the workspace and find that forum post or blog post, etc…this is a great help when the key person is on vacation or has left the organisation KM for free (retention, transfer, sharing, all that fruit)

Here’s my post on this topic

And more

Now that work is observable, people can be appraised for their dedication and resourcefulness. This is a big constraint at the moment
Here’s a few snips on that

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