E-mail - a seductive waste of time?

Progressive companies can easily justify the expense of delivering Internet and e-mail access to every desktop around the...

Progressive companies can easily justify the expense of delivering Internet and e-mail access to every desktop around the enterprise.

Alistair O'Reilly


However, this new-found efficiency has introduced opportunities for staff to be seduced into misuse of company time and resources.

Due to the way Web sites are constructed with multi-layered indexing, business surfers who want specific information have to navigate 100 irrelevant topics before they find what they are looking for.

This time-consuming search gives someone 100 opportunities to be seduced by information, adverts or even gateways to chatrooms. Staff do not expect to leave their desk whenever they please, to go shopping or have a chat. Yet personal surfing eats up as much time.

E-mail is a blessing and a curse. It is useful to share, in seconds, a snippet of customer or supplier information with colleagues who can benefit by knowing it. Indiscriminate mass circulation of business information is a waste of everyone's time.

E-mail is seductive. Most employers are happy for staff to take or make the occasional private phone call during working hours, on an exceptional basis. But with e-mail, it is too easy to enter into correspondence with colleagues, friends and family while sitting at your desk, especially when different friends converse in an e-mail group.

There have been many cases in the press about firms held liable for the e-mail sent by an employee: e-mail that the company does not condone or agree with and yet is held accountable for, often with expensive consequences.

One of the dangers is that messages written in frustration or anger are sent while the blood is still racing instead of being reviewed either when the anger has cooled down, or by a colleague.

People who talk angrily or in frustration on the telephone can easily call again and say sorry - the damage is limited and there is normally no record. The written word is easily kept and subsequently used in evidence. Suddenly, innocent gossip or a laugh between colleagues becomes bullying or slander - the stuff court cases are made of.

Companies have a responsibility to educate staff in appropriate and acceptable use of the Internet and e-mail. As well as the legal aspects, this must include education in the costs of usage when multiplied by the number of staff.

Educate users to send only serious and relevant e-mail and then only to those who need the information, thereby reducing traffic affecting bandwidth

Prevent e-mailing of large groups of addresses until messages have had content and address list vetted

Think of the high level of thought and proofreading you apply to the hard copy company newsletter, annual report and accounts. Apply the same diligence to every mass circulated e-mail

Make the Internet and e-mail accessible to staff for personal use in free time but in a controlled manner.

Forge a partnership between management and staff, in which all agree to random e-mail and Web monitoring.

Distribute a weekly report to line managers, detailing time spent online by the teams. This allows managers to grant or deny Internet access for personal surfing, according to how responsible their team is. Senior management can review trends and averages team by team and for the whole company.

As long as measures are carried out openly, you should meet no resistance from staff, as they will have been made aware of the issues and will know the organisation is acting to protect the best interests of them and the company.

Alistair O'Reilly is managing director of Access Accounting, www.access-accounts.com

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