The Web at Work

Where do you stand on the issue of whether employees -- IT or otherwise -- should be limited, if not entirely prohibited, from using the Internet during work hours for personal use?

This is not a new issue by any means. But the dynamics of the workplace today, coupled with an ever-changing technology landscape, are causing companies to rethink established policies.

For one thing, the Internet is more pervasive in our lives today than it was two years ago when companies began to ponder use policies. The volume of business-to-consumer e-commerce, for example, will balloon from about $100 billion this year to a staggering $2 trillion by 2004, according to estimates from industry analysts, such as International Data Corp. and Forrester Research Inc. People, particularly knowledge workers comfortable with computer technology, are finding the Web to be indispensable.

Now consider this: The big online job mart known as records the greatest number of hits on Mondays between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. That’s the start of the work week, when most employers probably assume their workers are as sharply focused on the here and now as they’ll be all week. Instead, they are looking for other opportunities, something they used to do Sunday mornings with the newspaper help-wanted section.

A study by Media Matrix revealed that office workers report spending nearly an hour per month browsing sex sites. For some reason, I sense the study sample low-balled that number.

The point is this: The spreading ubiquity of the Internet in our lives is blurring the line between what workers consider acceptable and unacceptable time cruising the Net. And since many office Internet connections are via high-speed lines, compared with most home connections on conventional modems, it is even more enticing to mess around at work, on the company’s time.

Monitoring and limiting what employees can and cannot do on the Internet is simple. There are several companies that sell commercial-grade software packages that can filter out most sex sites, job-search sites, your competitors’ sites, travel sites or whatever else you want to prevent workers from browsing during normal work hours. These packages also allow you to customize the restrictions: They can be lifted partially or totally at certain times of the day, such as the lunch hour.

Some employers, citing security issues, place Draconian restrictions on the use of the Internet for all but work-related matters, levying severe penalties --usually dismissal -- for violations.

What’s right? The Internet belongs to no one, that’s true, but the network and machines used to access the Internet belong to the company, as does your time during the work day.

On the other hand, isn’t there something positive to be gained by allowing workers to become familiar with the Internet, particularly when it comes to locating information? Couldn’t the same basic detailed search techniques an office administrator might use to find a bungalow on the beach at St. Johns be applied to finding secondary suppliers of office equipment?

I am not sure what the answer is. But I am sure that few companies, if any, bother to involve the masses in formulating a policy on Internet use during work. Usually some rubber-stamp committee convenes, discerns what it thinks the boss or bosses want, then issues a policy.

Why not trust the judgment of an average worker to define what he or she thinks would comprise a sound Internet use policy? I suggest that the IT department take a lead role in this process, locating and distributing information on the broad usage of the Web today, information similar to that above in this column.

Then have a citizens committee of workers, including IT staff, issue a series of policy recommendations that are based on its own review of Internet use data and upon their own personal usage habits. The catch is that management must have the courage and trust to accept all or most all the recommendations.

Any policy put in place ought to be reviewed annually as data change and technology will make it more compelling to spend time surfing.

When I last managed a large group, the Web was just starting to proliferate. I took a pretty hard line about its use in the office for anything other than office work. That was wrong, but it would also be wrong to issue a blanket policy of no policy at all, other than unlimited use at the worker’s discretion. Reason needs to prevail. Tap into the reason and wisdom of the workers and they’ll more readily accept a policy they’ve had a hand in crafting. --Bill Laberis is president of Bill Laberis Associates Inc. (Holliston, Mass.) and former editor-in-chief of Computerworld. Contact him at