Think about the last time you met a professional contact at a conference. Did you only talk about your most recent project at work, or did you delve into topics like your family or favorite television shows? My hunch is that you blended the personal and the professional as you built the initial rapport of the relationship.

Why do organizations expect their employees to interact on social networks — whether it’s Facebook or Twitter or an internal collaboration tool like Yammer — as if they are any different? Why do they force employees to focus only on work topics and fend off the family photos, recipes and recent celebrity buzz?

As an increasing number of government agencies are exploring the use of internal collaboration or ideation tools, there is a debate over whether all of the content should be work-related, or if employees should be allowed to create off-topic posts about everything from their favorite sports teams to pictures of their pets.

Steve Radick, a digital strategist and social media expert at Booz Allen Hamilton discussed this thorny issue in a blog on GovLoop last week. Since colleagues are often co-located in the same office, he argued, they talk mostly about their professional activities and might touch on some of their personal interests. However, it is hard to form strong professional relationships with work-only, surface-level information. As Radick puts it, “Have you ever talked with someone who talks about nothing but work? How often do you talk to that [person]?”

“People who have fun at work, who enjoy talking with the people they work, who develop friendships at work,” Radick contended, “are so much more productive and effective that people who focus solely on what they do.” And this relationship-building happens on web-enabled collaboration tools as well as around the water cooler.

Digital Media Producer Joe Flood agreed that, in order to jump start work relationships via internal social networks, the process for getting involved must be non-threatening and simple. As is true with in-person communication, web-based collaboration will not thrive with that “social” component. “There’s no incentive for people to participate, so they don’t. But most people will contribute their knowledge and help their co-workers if they’re provided a friendly platform to do so.”

This issue of stifling off-topic office conversation is nothing new. “Back when the hot new office technology was the manual typewriter, managers tried to stop employee conversations around the water cooler in a mistaken attempt to boost productivity,” commented Bill Brantley, a Human Resources Specialist. “It took the groundbreaking research around the Xerox copier repair persons to realize that employees were engaged in highly productive work conversations disguised as idle chatter.”

Spencer W. Clark, an Environmental Protection Specialist at the EPA’s Offfice of Environmental Information pointed out that the “Social Crew” has been one of the most active parts of the Emerging Leaders Network at his agency, and “key to the organization’s success” in promoting professional development. He believes that as teleworking becomes more common, “internal social spaces like Yammer will be crucial in helping compensate for the loss of water cooler conversations and other non-business interactions. Agencies that aren’t implementing those tools and allowing free and reasonable off-topic discussion are probably doing themselves (and their employees) a disservice.”

Whether it be in-person or online, Michelle G. Rosenbloom, Director of Marketing for the 3Leaf Group suggested that employee engagement is crucial in the workplace. “The true definition of employee engagement is having employees’ goals and strategies match the company’s goals and strategies — and putting forth the effort to meet those goals. Engagement can be achieved in many ways – but I think the crucial component of employee engagement is offering an innovative, fun, and exciting place to work.”

“The key is balance,” said Radick in response to one comment on his post. “Too many people just goofing off will obviously hinder the growth of the community, but so will too many people doing nothing but work.”

About the author: Allison Primack is a GovLoop Graduate Fellow and a Graduate Student at the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Administration at the George Washington University.