How Much Productivity Gets Snared in 'Net at Work?

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When it comes to employee Internet access at work, many companies feel they must choose either a strict "no personal usage" policy or a more laissez-faire approach, in which a little online shopping or surfing is OK as long as productivity doesn't take a hit.


Internet usage at work appears to be very much a reality for many folks, judging by a CBS Sports promotion, which featured (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) a "boss button" that would pop up a phony spreadsheet on demand during its streaming video broadcasts of the NCAA men's college basketball tournament.


Yet periodic reports surface with staggering estimates of the financial losses incurred by companies due to reduced productivity associated with online slacking. Two cases in point: a recent study from a UK consulting firm that put the annual amount lost due to online gambling at $591 million, and an older Salary.com estimate that companies lose some $759 billion a year because employees are surfing when they should be working.


Such reports are rarely put into perspective by including estimates of how much time workers spend, say, discussing "American Idol" with coworkers. The reality is, most employees can find ways to waste time if they put their minds to it, with or without Internet access. (The Salary.com survey is a rare and highly detailed exception, breaking out time-wasting by activity, age, state, industry, and a number of other categories.)


Of course, certain sites -- such as those featuring adult content -- can create problems far worse than cyber-slacking, because of their hunger for bandwidth, close association with malware, and potential for generating scandal or even breaking the law.


So it makes sense to have Internet usage policies in place -- and more importantly, to make sure employees understand them and to enforce them when necessary. Companies tend to ignore the latter points. Forty percent of respondents to a survey from 2006 say their companies have policies but do not enforce them.


In an IT Business Edge interview, the COO of a provider of Internet management tools suggests assembling a committee of representatives from several departments, including HR, legal, IT and line-of-business managers, to craft usage policies. Focus on areas that involve possible legal liability and obvious security risks (see above) first, before moving on to areas like online shopping and personal e-mail.