Workplace Internet Use & Abuse

By Jim Johnson, UniNews Worksplace and Careers Correspondent

Net Paradise is flourishing. For a couple of years now, users have been swimming in tools and resources. Staffers have gained a much greater level of technological self-sufficiency, as support sites and user groups have proliferated on the Web. There are now multiple software solutions forpractically any problem a user may face, usually available as downloadable evaluation versions, or even release versions, for free.

Research on any topic is as close as your favorite search engine. But, as with any paradise, there are serpents on the loose. When users surf the Web, what are they actually doing? What percentage of user time on the Net is actually spent productively vs. recreationally? No one would argue against the restrictions placed on the use of telephone long distance and 900 numbers in the office; likewise, very few of us would attempt to justify playing Doom, Solitaire, or Minesweeper while on the clock. Using the office net connection for recreational purposes would seem to fall into the same category.

Reports have been surfacing for a couple of years now, tales of horror. Hours spent on personal email, reading and posting to Usenet newsgroups relating to personal interests, downloading pornography; is giving net access to users really paying off for your company? Is the net too much fun to be practical? Are you getting a return on your investment, or are you taking a net loss due to missing productivity? How can you tell? And if you do have a problem, how can you solve it without sparking a civil war in the office?

First of all, "don't panic"! We're all still getting used to this revolution, and we're all adapting in our own way. The office net connection is most peoples' first introduction to the net, and we all know how incredible that first surf is. You've probably spent some time yourself doing some non-business surfing or emailing, so keep a perspective. Even if you've got to clamp down, have a little sympathy.

If you decide that you may have a problem, you have a wide range of options. In many cases, advisements and policy clarification will be sufficient. In more serious situations, some organizations resort to monitoring software or even blockage of specific sites. A small problem may not deserve any action at all; drafting a policy or buying and installing monitoring software simply may not be worth it. In every case, productivity and the defense of your Internet investment must be balanced against user privacy, organizational flexibility, and avoiding an oppressive work environment.

One of the most effective measures is also one of the easiest and most agreeable: simply remind users that Internet access is provided for the sole purpose of advancing the objectives of the organization. Invoke the values that bring them all together, and the priorities that support those values. This message is delivered much more effectively in person than via memo. If you've been successfully building team spirit and mutual trust, this should be plenty.

Hopefully, you can avoid contributing to size and complexity of your organization's bureaucracy. However, if you feel the need to set a formal policy on this, there's a few points that can increase its chances of being observed. First, state the need for the policy clearly, invoking commonly held values like saving money, conserving bandwidth, and professionalism. Also, if monitoring software is to be used, state so clearly, including the types of monitoring involved. Succinctly define who gets access to what. Consider permitting lunch-hour and off-the-clock use as a compromise, or even a perk. Make sure all employees understand the policy and the reasons for its implementation.

If you find the above measures to be inadequate, monitoring software may be the best option, but it should be considered very carefully. Some very useful, work-related net resources can occur in unusual places. For example, some excellent technical resources may be found in someone's personal directory on a public Internet access provider. And some very useful technical discussions can be found in the alt.* hierarchy. Many of the new technologies we're all using require some research to master; the most self-sufficient staffers will seek support from the net, legitimately. Heavy-handed warnings with Draconian punishments attached may inspire conscientious employees to limit the net research they're doing on behalf of the organization, out of fear that they will be unjustly accused of recreational use. Privacy and censorship debates can have legal consequences, as well as casting a pall over employee-management relations.

If you conclude that monitoring software is a necessity, make sure you have an appropriate-net-use policy in place and well-publicized before implementing it; the purpose is to prevent abuse, not criminalize people. Letting word "leak out" prior to a formal announcement may actually soften the blow and garner more respect. Although much of the available software permits node-specific logging by which abuse may be traced to a specific user, this can be overkill. A more effective approach may be to simply post office net-use statistics for all to see; most abusers will respond to the scrutiny, even when it isn't personal.

The most severe measure should be saved as a last resort: implementing systems that block access to specific sites. Most of us have heard of software that is intended to filter a child's use of the net; server-based software can achieve the same objective for an entire LAN. These methods not only cost, they also require careful administration to effectively prevent access to inappropriate sites while permitting access to sites that serve the goals of the organization. Many site-blocking software packages are now available that support a new content-filtering standard known as the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS). However, a proxy server or firewall (perhaps already installed) may be able to accomplish the same thing, if properly configured.

Although it's not as common as many people think, abuse of workplace Internet access can be a serious problem. Determining whether or not your organization has a problem, and dealing with the problem effectively, is not simply a matter of clamping down or restricting access. Like most other management challenges, careful thought and judicious use of authority are essential to success. In the end, the quality of relationships in the workplace is the key factor.

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