Employers Giving Up the Fight Against Web-Surfing Workers

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- Historically, there's always been an uneasy arrangement between employers and employees on the topic of workplace Internet access.

Company decision-makers don't necessarily want to stifle employee access to online data, especially in an information age in which information is as much a commodity as widgets or washing machines. And employees know their paycheck depends on them being productive, and spending an hour or two on Facebook ( FB) won't cut it, especially if management is aware of your workplace "distraction."

Increasingly though, companies are edging away from serious opposition to employee Internet access, even to social networking sites and online shopping portals.

That's the consensus of a study out from OfficeTeam, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based employee staffing service.

According to OfficeTeam, 53% of employers do not block worker access to the Internet, including allowing access to "nonproductive" (at least from a corporate point of view) sites such as Facebook or eBay ( EBAY). Furthermore, companies that erect a firewall between staffers and Internet access say staffers and managers get around Internet access restrictions by using their mobile devices.

"Even if companies don't block access to certain sites, they may be monitoring employee activity for excessive use," says Robert Hosking, executive director of OfficeTeam. "Professionals should be mindful of how they are spending their time while at the office. Surfing the Web might provide a nice break from work, but it should never get in the way of it."

We reached out to Hosking and asked how companies and employees can find common ground on workplace Internet access:

What should companies do to ease conflict over online access at work?

Hosking: Businesses should set ground rules when it comes to Internet use and make sure employees can find guidelines online and/or in the company handbook. Using language that is easy to understand helps to prevent confusion. Since the online landscape is constantly changing, employers may need to occasionally revisit and edit their policies.
  • If your company plans to track online activities, determine how it will do so and make employees aware they're being monitored. Deem what is considered acceptable use and what is excessive so every case will be handled consistently. Also, define the consequences for Internet misuse.
  • Managers should lead by example. Obviously, if the boss is spending a lot of time on personal tasks, it's easy for employees to think they can too.
  • If a worker is found to be spending too much company time surfing the Web, the issue should be addressed directly. Refer to the company Internet policy for how to handle instances of employee misuse, especially if work activities suffer as a result.

What middle ground can employers find to defuse Internet access conflicts with employees?

Hosking: Internet policies vary per company. Some organizations aren't concerned about workers accessing these sites and others may actually encourage visiting social networks and other pages for business purposes. Businesses may consider blocking objectionable websites or those that cause security or network bandwidth concerns, though.

Rather than blocking social networking, shopping and entertainment sites completely, some companies may choose to monitor Web use to ensure professionals aren't getting sidelined by nonwork-related sites.

Many employers are recognizing the need for work/life balance and allow workers to take short breaks during the day to take care of personal matters, which could include making online purchases or other Internet activities.

What stance should employees take on online Internet access?

Hosking: Completing work assignments should remain any professional's top priority while in the office. Some companies do allow workers to use the Internet for personal reasons in moderation, though.

Workers should review their corporate Internet policy for information about acceptable use.

Any tips for employees to stay out of hot water online at work?

Hosking: Professionals should understand their company Web policy. In addition, they should assess their corporate culture, since some organizations allow employees to use social media as a business tool.

Also ...

  • Be aware that most companies monitor employee Internet use. Avoid spending excessive time on the Internet for personal matters.
  • Don't forward viral videos or other irrelevant links to coworkers, and never send objectionable content.
  • Avoid suspicious emails or downloads that may cause security concerns. Alert your information technology team if anything looks amiss.

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