Monday, 6 September 2010

Internet at work, how to manage the “issue”?

Social networks, online shopping, personal emails, online media, chat rooms, instant messenger systems and much, much more; employees spend nowadays a long period of time on the internet at work for personal-related reasons. A study carried out by Olféo in 2009 showed that French employees spend an average of 66 minutes a day surfing the internet during the business working hours. The findings of the investigation also revealed that employees’ favourite activities are: check their personal email box, use social networks, read online news and shop online.
According to a similar investigation carried out in the UK by MyJobGroup, the time spent online by British employees, very similar in length to that spent by French workers, accounted in 2009 for an estimated loss of a staggering 17 billion Euros.
In order to avert the phenomenon to completely spin out of control, on account of the distraction and loss of concentration it causes, some organizations have totally banned or sensibly limited the private use of the internet to their employees during the working hours. The BNP management, for instance, decided to prevent employees accessing some websites – such as Facebook or Gmail –, whereas giving access to others – such as news and public transport websites. When an employee tries to access one of the websites banned by the company Internet policy, the screen shows a warning message recalling the employee that s/he should have not made the attempt to access that page.

Some organizations block or limit employee access to the internet to prevent their IT system from being exposed to viruses. In some countries, employee internet usage does not enjoy the same legal protection offered, for instance, to personal data so that employers can track the websites visited by their employees and deny access to undesirable sites accordingly. In some instances, employers have the obligation to deny their employees access to the Internet when this may be considered a danger for their infrastructure network and thus for the public.
The vast majority of French organizations, notwithstanding, have opted to avoid completely blocking the internet access to their employees. In contrast, many employers have decided to expand the number of accessible websites, considering that it is not preventing their employees accessing the internet which will enable them to reach higher levels of efficiency and productivity. Employees have indeed many other options to waste time, whether they want to.
Surfing the internet in the workplace is perceived by employers as a complete waste of time, time which individuals essentially deduct from that which these should devote to perform their working activities. For many individuals, especially for Generation Y people, nonetheless, browsing the internet rather represents the way these naturally approach their work. Younger generations consider the internet as a working tool exactly like the telephone. Limiting or banning the use of social network, in particular to young generations, would negatively impact their job; for these individuals, social networks are also a common place where share and hopefully find solutions to specific work-related problems. Young people do not hence use social network just for personal reasons. In some organizations, namely those where the internet is part of their core business, like Google and Cisco, employees are even encouraged to surf the Net, which employers also see as a more effective way to communicate around their brand.

The best approach employers can adopt is possibly neither giving employees a completely free of control access to the internet nor totally banning it. The one size hardly fits all, it is thus also unlikely that the problem might be effectually tackled adopting a best practice approach, that is, an approach which has proved to be effective in some other organizations. Every employer has different needs and should hence differently approach the issue, invariably taking heed of the IT Director advice.
Organizations should regulate the use of the Internet by developing and introducing a specific policy aiming at clearly defining what the employer means by, for instance, “appropriate” and “reasonable” when referring to the personal use of the Internet in the workplace. Policies may, for instance:

- State the maximum length of time individuals can surf the Internet on any single day;

- Provide for the suitable period of the day when employees can freely surf the net (during breaks, for instance);

- Limit and list the number of authorized websites.
Employers might alternatively prefer to arrange and provide employees dedicated “surfing spaces” within the organization where staff can freely surf the net before or after their regular working hours. These spaces might indeed also be used by employees to socialize with their colleagues.

In a bid to deter employees from surfing the internet for long periods of time, some organizations have decided to adopt open-plan office layouts. This approach appears to be sorely questionable in that such a decision should be indeed made on the basis of much more relevant and significant considerations.
A French employee confessed to a social media to spending at least one hour a day surfing the internet at work; he added that doing that allows him to address most of his daily issues: banking, administration, shopping, etc. This also enables him to spend more valuable time at work, but whether his employer should ban the use of the internet, he would have no option than to leave the office earlier in order to care about his personal commitments. Thinking about and planning for his personal duties during the day would clearly make him less efficient and less productive at work. According to this employee, the Internet is a very useful and powerful tool, which enables employers to save a lot of money and gain new expertise.
Internet is seen by employers as the employee distraction of the present times. The current debate about the Internet has essentially replaced the debate engaging employers in the distant past about the use of the telephone at work. Nonetheless, a number of options are certainly available in order for employers to effectively and properly manage the “issue.” Every organization just needs to identify its “best fit” solution, but totally banning the use of the Internet definitely represents the least convenient approach to adopt, younger generations could not indeed survive the measure.
Longo, R., (2010), Internet at work, how to manage the “issue”?; HR Professionals, [online].