Is employee Internet usage worth restricting?

A Confederation of British Industry survey found that a significant amount of employee Internet usage in the workplace is for personal reasons. Employee monitoring, establishing an Internet usage policy and terminations are also discussed.

Employee personal Internet use at work could be costing British business more than £10 billion a year, according to the Confederation of British Industry. A survey of 503 of its member organisations, which between them employ more than a million workers, revealed that employees spend on average 95 minutes a week – or 10 days a year – using the Internet for personal purposes unrelated to work.

Productivity and morale can increase when firms trust staff to use the web sensibly to catch up with friends on Facebook, pay household bills, or search for a cheap flight.


John Cridland,
deputy director-generalConfederation of British Industry

A third (32%) of the respondents, who were mainly HR professionals, said they had disciplined an employee for Internet misuse during 2007, while 13% said they took action to dismiss an employee for persistent misuse.

The research, carried out in January and February, uncovered some extreme cases of employee Internet misuse. In one instance, an employee at an insurance company was dismissed for spending entire working days playing a fantasy role-playing game on the Internet. In another example, a local authority fired a staff member for running an eBay business from his office computer, and using the authority's address to communicate with buyers and sellers.

But John Cridland, the CBI deputy director-general, said in a statement there was "no epidemic of misuse" and that reasonable employee Internet usage could be a morale booster.

"While an hour and a half a week of employee Internet usage may sound like a lot, it is not always wasted time," he said. "Productivity and morale can increase when firms trust staff to use the web sensibly to catch up with friends on Facebook, pay household bills, or search for a cheap flight."

A CBI spokesman said some of the employee Internet usage figures were based on estimates by HR professionals, but the findings are in line with other recent studies. For instance, a survey of 776 office workers in April by Global Secure Systems found that on average, staff spent 30 minutes a day on social networking sites while at work. The CBI found that more than half of organisations (54%) restrict Internet access at work, although the extent of that control can vary. One in seven (14%) deny access altogether, while a quarter (25%) admitted they had no limits on access. The remaining 7% said they were considering imposing limits on Web usage.

While many companies have condoned unfettered access to the Internet and embraced Web 2.0 technologies such as social networking sites and wikis, others see it as a way for staff to waste time, consume bandwidth on non-work activities, and also give away company secrets.

But according to Ross Paul, director of product management at Websense, companies are demanding more from their employees, and this results in a blurring between work and personal time.

"For many companies, the notion of office hours is an anachronism," he said. "For Employee 2.0, it just a question of getting the work done on time. So they may work at home or on the road. Our customers are asking for more flexibility to allow their employees to work anytime, anywhere."

The decision over whether to allow social networking and other personal Web usage may come down to who holds the most power in a company. In the run-up to this year's Infosecurity show, the organisers carried out a straw poll among CISOs and found that while most would like to ban social networking sites altogether, they often ran up against HR departments which saw the sites as a means of promoting communication.

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