As someone whose entire career would not exist without the World Wide Web, I think of the internet as a tool, a marketplace, a reference library. I once had to spend a week without a broadband connection while I was in the process of moving and I felt oddly disconnected and anxious, as if a vital part of my life was missing. To me, the internet is a way to connect, create and learn.
But to most employers outside the ecommerce industry, the internet is viewed as simply this:
There is no doubt that the advent of computer-based work and having an entire world of entertainment available at our fingertips has contributed to increased worker distraction. But haven’t employees always found ways to goof off at the office? How much distraction is too much?
Brazen Careerist blogger, Matt Elliott, argues that as long as an employee is getting their work done, they should be allowed the freedom to do with their time as they wish.
It seems entirely acceptable for an employee to spend 10 minutes chatting with co-workers about the movie they saw on the weekend or 5 minutes on a personal phone call, but apparently just a glimpse at Facebook is an instant productivity killer. The message, I guess — and this is coming from those generally clueless about everything online — is that you can’t be working if you’re also on some website.
The real issue I have with this is one of trust. By constantly monitoring your employees’ screens, by installing filters and blocks, by blanket policies forbidding access at work, you’re essentially saying to your employees that you can’t trust them. “Why would you do this stupid work I’ve assigned you when you have fun internet things to look at?”
I can certainly agree that if an employee’s output is being impacted by constant web surfing (or personal phone calls, frequent absences, or general goofing off), then by all means, they should be disciplined for poor performance.
But what if the irresponsible actions of a handful of employees start to affect the work of others?
What if one employee’s constant Facebook viewing goes unchallenged and the other members of that person’s department have to pick up that person’s the slack or become resentful and therefore less productive? Or even more commonly, what if an employee’s YouTube addiction starts to drain serious bandwith from the entire company, impacting internal systems from functioning?
A comment on Matt’s post by a reader named Travis offers some startling statistics:
Being an Administrator that has recently put in place a content filter to “Block” employees from going to certain sites, I completely agree…that people need to save it for after work. It’s called work for a reason, and allowing Facebook and Myspace are not conducive to a working environment. I personally have watched the productively levels increase here – we did a test as to how many “hits” sites like Myspace and Facebook were getting prior to blocking the sites, and I can say that in the 3 months of testing certain employees were on those sites 28% of their day, now that they are blocked we get about 15% of that back in productivity (the other 13% now goes to other sites that we don’t feel we should block)
28% is over a quarter, or 2 hours of every workday. That is some serious time and bandwith being wasted. Doesn’t everyone have to sign computer-usages policies as part of the standard new hire paperwork? Most people seem to ignore the points about excessive personal internet usage and the prohibitions about streaming media and downloads. Some people don’t even read the policy before signing it. How does that demonstrate personal accountability, even among those who only “occasionally” check their personal email at the office?
Where should businesses draw the line? Should they honor an employee’s personal freedom to do what they wish and deal with troublemakers on an individual basis? Or should they aim for the lowest common denominator and ban all non-work-related sites (such as MySpace, Facebook or YouTube) from office computers?
What do you think?