Survey says: employers okay with e-surfing

We’ve all done it. You sit down to lunch at your desk, click on the Internet icon and surf over to your favorite retail site, where you place an order for the Pokemon figures your son wants for Christmas. No harm done, right?

Believe it or not, that’s what most companies said in a recent survey. Despite the rash of horror stories about how much personal Internet use is costing companies in lost productivity, those surveyed and others interviewed by Computerworld said they just aren’t very concerned about it.

Instead, they’re publishing flexible policies on how computer assets can and should be used during work hours. And for the most part, the policies seem to be working.

In a recent survey conducted by the Santa Clara, Calif.-based Saratoga Institute, only 4.5 per cent of the 244 companies that responded said they were “extremely concerned” about employees surfing the Net for personal reasons. Some 15.2 per cent said they weren’t at all concerned, and about 50 per cent said they were “somewhat or more concerned.”

“Everyone is aware of [the issue of Web-shopping at work], but very few companies are doing anything about it,” said Michael Kelly, the study’s author. “The legal scouts have not sent back much useful information on the right to privacy.”

The Medstat Group Inc. in Ann Arbor, Mich., is one company that has never had productivity problems among its 700 employees as a result of Internet use, said Michael J. Karaman, vice-president and chief technology officer for product development.

“At the same time, we recognize and tolerate a small amount of personal use,” Karaman said. “This flexibility has become more important as the workday extends beyond the workplace and into the home.”

At minimum, Kelly advocates that organizations whose employees have Internet access create acceptable-use policies, and many said they have already done so.

Of the companies surveyed by the Saratoga Institute, 82.6 per cent said they have a written Internet use policy, and 62.9 per centsaid they include it in their employee handbooks.

One such company is Las Vegas-based law firm Barker, Brown, Busby, Chrisman & Thomas PC. Jeremy Brummett, who manages the firm’s IT systems, said he published an acceptable-use policy primarily because of liability concerns.

“We didn’t want to find out down the road that there was reason to have [a policy] when we didn’t,” said Brummett. Employees must sign the policy, which says they agree not to visit objectionable Internet sites or use company e-mail assets to send objectionable or harassing information, he said.

Joy Harris, a spokeswoman for Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Best Buy Co., said Best Buy’s policy allows “reasonable” use of company systems for informal or personal purposes, such as during lunch periods or breaks.

“It is the responsibility of each employee to comply with the policy and of managers to monitor and ensure compliance,” said Harris.

And that’s just the way it should be, said Jill Frankle, an analyst at Gomez Advisors Inc. in Lincoln, Mass. Although there is plenty of evidence that people are shopping online at work, measuring productivity losses from it is very difficult, she said.

And despite personal use, the Internet and e-mail give employees more flexibility to balance a productive career with their personal lives.

“Companies are empowering their employees with these tools and empowering them to be responsible employees,” said Frankle.

But not everybody sees it that way. “The person making their [online] purchase is not necessarily doing their work, and they could be affecting other people’s work as well by soaking up bandwidth,” said Kevin Blakeman, president of U.S. operations at SurfControl PLC, a Scotts Valley, Calif.-based firm that develops Internet usage-monitoring tools that can alert companies when their employees are visiting objectionable Web sites.

SurfControl recently completed a study that found that 30 per cent to 40 per cent of worker productivity is lost due to personal use of the Internet, and nearly three quarters of workers with Internet access acknowledged that their personal use slows down their company’s network.

The Saratoga Institute also acknowledges that personal usage that gets out of control can cost companies a lot in lost productivity.

In fact, a company with 1,000 Internet users who do personal Web surfing for one hour per day can lose more than $35 million in productivity costs each year, according to the institute.

Sam Asher, president of Sam Asher Computing Services Inc., a 30-person custom software development firm in Rochester, N.Y., said he sees his employees using the Internet for non-work-related reasons all of the time.

“I don’t have a problem with it. This is no different than using a phone, photocopier or other office items for personal use,” said Asher. “My sense is that . . . those that abuse their opportunities abuse all of their opportunities. For those who do a good job, I am happy to make the service available to them.”

Karaman agreed draconian monitoring isn’t the answer.

“No amount of policing will ever eliminate inappropriate behavior,” said Karaman. “Companies should hire people who fit the corporate culture, spend the time to adequately orient and train them, then get out of the way and let them do their job.”