Tom Yager: Be careful being a Big Brother

Mixed in among gloomy economic statistics are occasional bright spots, one of them being a 5.2 per cent increase in worker productivity in the fourth quarter. That figure is no surprise, particularly in IT. Workers are putting in extra hours, taking work home, and doing what they must to stay indispensable. Considering this extra effort and the general atmosphere of anxiety in the workplace, recent wire stories sounding alarms about employee misuse of company-owned technology seem out of place.

The vendors that make such controversial tools as keystroke loggers and e-mail content analyzers want to expand the definition of inappropriate use. The reasons they advance mostly revolve around productivity and security – but user productivity should never be an IT performance metric. If equipment or infrastructure interferes with workers’ efforts, IT needs to step in. But if some slacker spends too much work-time shopping, reading Usenet news, or sending instant messages, it’s a management problem, not a technology issue. You can’t transform an undisciplined worker into a productive one by policing how he uses his computer.

Security is within IT’s domain, but companies can’t possibly block every potential vector for viruses, Trojans, and other malicious code. Take reasonable steps: Scan incoming e-mail for viruses and teach employees not to download or open suspicious files. Such extreme measures as banning instant messaging (IM), blocking access to benign Web sites, and stripping all binary e-mail attachments inconveniences users without a measurable improvement in security.

Misuse of corporate computing and communications resources is a real problem and one that IT should revisit periodically. Policies need to adapt as technology changes, and where appropriate, equipment and software should be deployed to place realistic limits on non-work desktop computer and Internet use. Policy education is more important than enforced restrictions; if you make it clear to employees what’s out of bounds, the vast majority will behave without needing a playpen.

Granting workers the trust and freedom to have a little fun with their computers reduces burnout and improves morale. Such intangible benefits might seem less important in the current economic climate, but things will turn around. Contented employees stay put longer and lure talented candidates by telling friends how cool their workplace is.

In addition to the human consequences of Scroogian restrictions on computer use, such edicts are technically unfeasible. Once the IT department is ordered to identify and stop nonjob-related computer and Internet usage, a burdensome list of access rules and exceptions will start to build. Eventually, the people responsible for maintaining the filters, firewalls, and spyware will just block everything because they’re tired of hearing managers gripe about how so-and-so was playing Solitaire and someone else snuck an unauthorized IM through a proxy.

In the end, there is only one good thing about a broad ban on non-business computer use. The cleaning crew will have the office all to itself at 5:01 p.m. every day.

Tom Yager ([email protected]) is the technical director of the InfoWorld (U.S.) Test Center.

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