I was in a congressperson’s office recently waiting to discuss the Microsoft case and I had an interesting experience. While waiting for 45 minutes, I watched how the administrative staff used their “productivity enhancing” tools (PCs with Internet and e-mail access).

Three phone calls went unanswered because the receptionist was trying to sell off some of her possessions on eBay. At another desk, one of the legislative aides was attempting to buy something on uBid for his home computer and the auction was about to close. He needed to stay by the computer to make sure he didn’t overbid, so work had to stop in order to save $15.

Since this experience, I’ve made a point of looking at computer screens when I walk through other people’s offices, just to see what actual work is being accomplished. I’ve been consistently amazed at the frequency of eBay, Yahoo!, MSN, uBid, Amazon, and other assorted portals that have become the interactive screensavers of the electronic corporation. If anyone wants to know where the productivity gains went from the electronic age, they just have to look at their Internet pipe. That’s where they’re gushing out by the minute.

It’s like déjà vu all over again
Most of the small business people I speak to express this fear as the reason they don’t give high-speed Internet access or e-mail to their employees. They say they can’t afford the lost productivity caused by personal “surfing” and “letter writing.”

The fact is, most large companies can’t afford it either. And it’s not like we haven’t seen this problem before.

Remember the early 90s debate over the “personal computer” vs. the “business computer?” Employees viewed the PC as theirs, meaning that they could install any software they wanted to in order to enhance their “productivity.”

The business view was that they provided the business computer as a tool for their employee and could dictate what was installed and supported. Ultimately, of course, the CIOs won.

PCs are business tools with business applications installed and most of the abuses remaining are the same as before the personal computer—the occasional church bulletin or kid’s little league schedule. Employees were angered then, but they got over it, mostly because many of them got their own home PCs.

A more measured response
Of course, there’s a simple way to respond to this. Just shut off the Internet pipe and watch the productivity soar! OK, so maybe it’s not so simple.

I think all of us recognize that there are legitimate reasons for our employees to have Internet access. And turning off the pipe violates one of my prime rules of management:

Don’t create systems or rules that punish the 98 percent of the people who do the right thing, create ones designed for the 2 percent of the people who don’t.

So where’s the happy medium?

  • Track access but don’t control it.
    First, put systems in place that can track all Internet access by employee ID (or UserID). This should include not only access to Web sites, but also a record of all incoming and outgoing mail.
  • Keep records of the Web sites accessed and for how long.
    You should also track domains that mail was sent to and received from as well as the size of any attachments to the e-mail.
  • Decide on your employees’ use of the technology that’s reasonable.
    This may mean that employees shouldn’t use Internet access or e-mail for any personal reasons. But don’t put this in place unless you’re also willing to tell employees they can’t make or take personal phone calls any more either. A more balanced policy is to limit either volume or time. For example, you could limit personal time spent on Web sites to no more than 10 percent of their total browsing or 30 minutes a day. You can also produce statistics that use similar metrics for electronic mail.
  • Decide on the reporting mechanism: scheduled or exception.
    If you’re using scheduled reporting, then send a copy of the employee’s Internet and/or e-mail usage to their manager at specified intervals: Daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc.
    This is no different than most internal telecom managers producing long distance utilization statistics by extension or phone card. The problem with scheduled reporting is that most people don’t have the time to review it.
    The other approach, managing exceptions, is a more practical one. Only produce a report when an individual’s usage is out of the bounds of the previously determined limits. Then the manager and the employee can have a discussion about what actions, if any, are appropriate given the circumstance.

It’s also a good idea to have a signed copy of an Internet and electronic mail usage policy on file in which the employee acknowledges that they understand the limits they’re agreeing to, that all communications over the Internet will be tracked, and that there are ramifications for abuse of the resource (including termination).

Having these policies in place (and a mechanism to enforce them) will also help you defend your company against charges of sexual harassment or other litigation as long as your usage policy spells out the employees’ responsibility and liability.

Of course, it will also be critical that you have a system in place that will help you track all of the Internet usage automatically. It should also handle scheduled or exception reporting and help you manage your policy compliance. The tools to build such a system—proxy servers and firewalls—are already in place at most corporations.

The real answer
Interestingly, the real solution to this problem will evolve naturally. Just like getting PCs at home took away their novelty at work, high-speed Internet connections at home will have the same impact.

I suspect many corporations will even combine the control measures I mentioned earlier with subsidizing some or all of the charges for their employees’ high-speed access at home. In the interim, you’ll have to figure out where the line is between treating employees like children and asking them to use company resources responsibly.
Do you have policies in place that spell out how long employees can spend on the Internet? Are they prohibited from visiting certain kinds of sites or do you leave it up to the discretion of the employees to use their best judgment? What works best? Send us an e-mail or post a comment below.