Jeff, a Toronto-based graphics designer, is only slightly bashful about how he spent his time during a recent day at work.

“I pretty much blew off Monday on a news-group,” he said. “I wouldn’t do it purposely, but there was a discussion that had already gone for about 13 pages with ongoing posts. It was really kind of an addiction. You start typing away and, before you know it, you are all over the Internet researching and looking for links that help you show these people just how wrong they are.”

While spending all day on non-work Web sites isn’t typical for him, Jeff admits that he spends at least an hour every day dealing with personal e-mail and other “distractions.”

Recent studies show that personal Internet time has become this decade’s version of the water cooler, and according to a group studying the problem in Canada, it can be more menacing than just chatting away company time. The specific dangers are just one element that the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA), along with Ottawa-based Internet management firm Bajai, hope to uncover with a Canadian survey looking at the depth of ‘cyber-slacking.’

CATA president John Reid said that while this is a relatively new issue, it is something that management needs to watch.

“We feel that we can provide some guidance, similar to what we do with tax matters,” Reid said from his Ottawa office. “This is a global issue and isn’t particular to any one country or company.”

While Reid said that smaller companies are less likely to have problems with this and policies have to be created on a company-by-company basis, there is one rule that managers have to follow.

“You have to have a policy of trust and this subject has to be up-front with employees,” he said. “If you vet issues like this and talk about solutions, it leads to more consistency and fairness.”

Anthony Whitehead, president and CEO of Bajai, generated the 12 core questions on the survey.

“The United States has some serious problems within the business world of misuse of Internet resources,” he said, using eBay statistics as an example. He said that average workplace cyber-slackers who shop on eBay spend over two hours per session during the 9-to-5 day. At home, shopping time drops to an hour. He cited a recent Angus Reid poll that shows Canadians with Internet access at work spend a total of 800 million hours a year on non-work related Internet surfing while on the job. While reduced productivity is a natural consequence of this behaviour, it is not the only danger, Whitehead said.

“When unfettered access happens and people can access inappropriate content such as porn and hate sites, and that stuff gets circulated around the office, you end up with a hostile workplace and opens up a company for lawsuits,” he said.

He added that people seemed to go through a “mental disconnect” when they start using the Internet at work.

“People will go shopping online, but no one would ever think of going to the office, unpacking their briefcase, setting up their papers and then going to the local mall and spend all day shopping and then leave,” he said.

Bajai makes tools to help managers control non-work e-mail and Internet use, but Whitehead said the most important thing a company has to do is create a policy around Internet usage. Employees shouldn’t be offended by rules or monitoring either, he continued, because privacy at work is more of a privilege than a right.

“In reality, employees have no right to privacy because they don’t own those machines and they don’t own the bandwidth,” he said. “From the point of view of creating a good corporate culture, the company should state that there can be some expectation of privacy, but the reality is that you don’t own any of the resources you are working on and you don’t own any of the work that you have done. You have traded off that work for a salary.”

Bajai offers a service on its Web site to help managers calculate how much the company could be losing by cyber-slacking employees. According to the calculator, graphics designer Jeff is costing his company more than $4,000 annually.

It’s tools like that calculator that Rick Broadhead, a Toronto-based author of several Internet-related books, thinks will create a nasty work environment and cause productivity to plummet. What’s more, he added, is that the concept doesn’t even make sense.

“Do you know how many things I could find today that impede productivity in an office?” he asked. “These calculators are ridiculous. I don’t believe in counting every second in the Dilbert Zone and then saying that ‘We just lost $100 million.’ If you don’t trust your employees, why are they there in the first place?”

He said that if an employee’s Internet activity is affecting the network, or it if is changing the quality of work, or if what the employee is looking at is offensive, then management needs to draw the line.

“Beyond that, I don’t think there is anything wrong if, in the middle of the day, someone needs a bit of a distraction and they go online,” he said, adding that every company needs to have an Internet policy in case of a legal situation. “People need to be educated about how to use corporate computer facilities responsibly.”

Jeff says that cyber-slacking is simply a symptom of a much larger problem.

“These companies keep us working here for more than eight hours a day, in general, so all this silliness about corporate fairness isn’t fair at all,” he said. “Whatever happened to eight hours work, eight hours rest, eight hours sleep? When they say we are slackers, we are probably just trying to deal with the stress, so they should back off.”

So, instead of spending downtime looking out his window at the office, Jeff looks out of what he calls “the window to the world.”

“It takes you away, in a virtual sense, from work and your office,” he said. “Do I feel guilty about it? No.”

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