To surf or not to surf. Internet policies at work

Publication of the top 10 websites visited by Department for Transport staff while they are at work makes for interesting reading.

As you might expect, on-line shopping, keeping up with the breaking headlines and checking the latest cricket score feature highly on the list. But according to a report in the Daily Telegraph, civil servants are also spending their time gambling, playing virtual reality games and looking up local belly dancing classes.

Now before you raise your hands in horror, you might want to know there’s evidence to suggest that a bit of surfing while at work is not necessarily a bad thing. Researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London have found that these ‘e-breaks’ can actually boost productivity. Maybe it’s the modern day equivalent of discussing last night’s Eastenders with Mavis from accounts over a cup of tea?

The challenge for employers of course is working out how to strike the balance between a bit of harmless surfing to break up the day and an internet habit which is seriously interfering with productivity.

The Department for Transport, when called upon by the Telegraph to explain, said its policy is that “personal use of the internet by staff should be kept as short as possible and should not in any event exceed one hour in each day made in their own time, e.g. meal breaks.”

A laudable aim, although perhaps a bit difficult to enforce given that thanks to the advent of smart phones, employees no longer need to use their work computer to  organise their social life on Facebook or snap up a bargain on Ebay. How is a manager to know, for example, whether an employee is diligently answering emails on their Blackberry or shopping around for the cheapest flight to Alicante?

Of course there’s also the blurring of boundaries between work-related and personal use of the Internet. If an employee spends an hour polishing their LinkedIn profile and expanding their on-line network are they doing it for personal gain or are they making useful connections that will benefit your business? Is browsing on Amazon a waste of company time – or could it lead one of your staff to a great idea for a new product or service?

Forward looking employers are realising that however scary it might seem, they need to embrace the on-line world rather than try to control it. Yes, clear guidelines are important, but they need to be peppered with a dose of realism. Organisations can’t police people’s use of the Internet – but treat them like adults and trust them to behave responsibly, and they probably will.

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