How Much to Watch Your Workers Web Surf

CHICAGO (MainStreet) -- Cyber Monday started the week off with a bang. IBM's (IBM) annual Cyber Monday Benchmark, which tracks transactions from 500 retailers, found sales were up 33% this year compared with 2010. The peak shopping time was 2 p.m. Eastern (11 a.m. Pacific), which suggests that an awful lot of Americans did their holiday ordering from the office.

Is that a problem? For many small-business owners, how and when their employees use the Internet is an eternal, nagging concern. Now that social media plays an ever-more-important part in marketing, it's unrealistic to cut off all access to Facebook and Twitter, especially if your company uses them to reach out to customers. But does making those sites available give workers tacit permission to update their personal accounts all day? Is productivity suffering?
For many small-business owners, how and when their employees use the Internet is an eternal, nagging concern.

Every company, from Fortune 500 behemoths to the mom and pop corner deli, struggles with these issues. A recent study by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 43% of organizations blocked employees' access to social media on company-owned computers or handheld devices. That means more than half of companies allow their employees to access sites such as Facebook while at work; of those companies, only about one-third track what their employees are doing.

So what are your options if you're concerned how workers spend time online? The first thing to consider is the difference between online security and online monitoring. Every office computer system should be set up with certain security controls to keep out viruses and prevent employees from making illegal downloads. Such security monitoring has gotten even more important with the rise of social media, since links shared through Facebook and Twitter can be used to pass along malware that threatens an entire office network.

Most network security systems flag offensive or illegal content; rather than continually tracking everyone's online activity, the boss gets a heads-up only if a person tries to access a blocked site or sends a raunchy email. While it might seem obvious that certain sites are a no-no at the office, it's important to clearly spell out which lines shouldn't be crossed and the penalties for doing so. If you want to fire someone for gambling online from their office laptop, you'd better be able to show that the employee was warned of the consequences of that behavior.

An "Acceptable Use" policy spells out exactly what employees can and cannot do while using company-owned technology. Websense, which sells a number of different Web-security products, offers free templates of such documents that can be tailored to your company's needs.

If you're concerned about employees' overall Internet use, it's certainly possible to set up a surveillance system for all office computers. But it's not always worth the time it takes to monitor it. Such systems generate reports of all the Web sites employees have visited; someone has to scroll through those lists, then check out any unfamiliar sites. It's doable for a small office, but can become cumbersome for larger companies.

A certain amount of personal Web-surfing is pretty much unavoidable these days; consider it a cost of doing business in a wired world. But there's a big difference between someone who posts constant Facebook status updates and someone who clicks over occasionally to Amazon or the local news station site. Allowing personal online shopping, especially during the holiday season, might even improve productivity. After all, picking and shipping presents online can be more efficient than the alternative: taking an extra-long lunch break or leaving early to trudge through the mall or wait in line at the post office.

Rather than treat all employees as potentially guilty of online slacking, it may be more time- and cost-effective to monitor a specific person once a problem arises. Simply walking around the office can help you discover abuse as much as any surveillance system. If a certain employee never seems to get their work done and can often be found scrolling through nonwork-related Web sites, it may be time to track that person's usage so you have a paper trail to back up any disciplinary action.

There's one final consideration when it comes to Web surfing at work. If a company owner institutes a plan that strictly limits Internet access, he or she should be prepared to live with those restrictions. It looks pretty bad if the boss trolls for cyber-shopping deals that everyone else can't access. Examine your own Internet usage at work, and allow your employees similar latitude: you should all be playing by the same rules.

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This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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