Bust the Cyberslackers

Businesses should crack down on workers who visit recreational Web sites—such as Fantasyfootball.com and Facebook.com—on company time. Pro or Con?

Pro: Encourage Responsible Behavior

The lines between personal and business life are blurring fast, and a growing number of businesses expect employees to make themselves available beyond the hours of 9 to 5. So it’s only natural for workers to conduct some personal business at the office. Oftentimes, however, those workers—as well as people working a strictly seven- or eight-hour shift—feel entitled to spend some of their time visiting recreational Web sites. When it comes to this Internet usage, employers need to draw strong boundaries.

A Challenger, Gray & Christmas study found that, during the football season, productivity losses for U.S. businesses related to Fantasyfootball.com could add up to $275 million to $435 million weekly. To protect themselves, employers must define their policies and monitor their effectiveness. Clearly articulated acceptable-use guidelines let employees know which behaviors their employers tolerate and those they don’t. Additionally, employers must refine these policies and ensure they reflect the culture of the company as a whole.

Granted, employee participation in social-networking sites or Fantasyfootball.com can raise morale and productivity in a company. However, when the company lacks the capability to track the effectiveness of its policy on such issues, the opportunity for abuse is great. For most businesses—mine included—the payroll presents the largest recurring expense. While most employers wouldn’t mind an employee taking a few minutes to update a fantasy football lineup, spending half a day monitoring a team’s success quickly becomes an expensive problem. An employee’s slacking off may mean the company has to pay him or her overtime to stay late to finish legitimate business—or engage a temporary worker.

Social-networking sites pose a different problem for Corporate America. An employee who visits a blog or social-networking site while using the company’s network may not realize that he or she has left the company’s fingerprints on personal postings. While the employee’s personal views might not be generally offensive, they could contradict company policy or expose the business to potential liability.

Con: Lighten Up on Workers

It sounds simple enough to say that employers need not tolerate recreational Web browsing by their workers. Work is for work; do your personal cybersurfing on your own time and your own computer, right? This seems eminently reasonable—until you actually stop and think about it. A rule of zero or near-zero tolerance for cyberleisure on the job might make sense in a workplace populated exclusively by robots, but it’s impractical and unreasonable in the real world of real humans at real jobs.

The Internet isn’t just a business tool; it’s an information and communications necessity. Cracking down on recreational surfing means making difficult, potentially intrusive, and mostly unnecessary decisions about the kinds of “information” employees are allowed to consume at the workplace. Do employers really want to go there?

So it’s acceptable to spend a break reading an online article at BusinessWeek.com but not playing online computer games? It’s reasonable to e-mail a colleague to arrange lunch but not to post a comment on his Facebook page? Will I be fired for making a passing reference to last night’s game in an interoffice e-mail?

This isn’t about recreational Web surfing. The issue here is freedom of expression—an employee’s ability to think and read and communicate on matters that have nothing to do with work—without interference from the employer. What’s really relevant to the manager is actual job performance. Employers should certainly feel free to discipline workers who abuse the privilege of Internet access to the detriment of their productivity, just as they would show little tolerance for any other behavior that significantly impairs performance.

Smart employers know that talented, motivated people want to work where they are evaluated on their performance, not within a zero-tolerance tyranny where they are judged by the private expressive choices they make in filling their idle moments.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments

JEH

I am a very productive person and consistently get stellar reviews. I would leave a company if they told me that I wasn't allowed to take short breaks and do whatever I wanted to during those breaks (assuming it's legal and not harmful to others). It's business, not day care.

J

I'm just a kid in high school and even this seems to have a simple answer. No company should care as long as that employee is doing his job well. And if he or she isn't, boot the slacker out the door.

Aron

I agree with Jeh 100%--we sacrifice a lot of our after-work time for work-related issues or travel, so the company must reciprocate.

random

The so-called lost productivity numbers are misleading. Web-filtering software makers bundle up the number of hours they think employees are goofing off online and multiply them by the average wage of an American employee. The result is a big, scary number perfect for telling some exec that companies everywhere are loosing some ridiculously high number of dollars a year on Web surfing and will keep doing so unless they buy some web-blocking software this very second. Every time you see all these millions and billions, start dividing.

So if Fantasy Football takes away between $275 million and $435 million per year, that's only about $2 or $4 per every employee in America. If you're a manager or an executive and you start having a conniption because some magical productivity guru published that you're loosing $4 per employee during fantasy football season and that by shutting down all access to anything fun on the Web you'll restore or even boost the company's productivity level since the random number on your dashboard will go up, you should consider a career change. If you're that manager, you simply do not understand how to work with people or how to measure productivity.

If we look at the bigger picture, these numbers are meaningless because they assume that an employee not surfing the Web for fun isn't slacking and is hard at work while an employee who takes a break or two to surf the Web for fun doesn't benefit from a productivity boost after his or her surf break. This is just childishly simplistic.

If you've ever worked in a company with lots of people, you'll know how much slacking off takes place outside of Web surfing. Conversations, needless status meetings that become hourlong stand-up routines, people working as slowly as possible because they can, people doing meaningless make-work. Web surfing for the sheer hell of it is just a small part of the productivity drains one can spot at work. And oddly enough, with all this lost productivity combined, the years 2004 to 2007 boast some of the highest productivity rates ever. Go figure.

To quote Warren Buffet: Focus on what's meaningful, not measurable. Is work getting done on time and with the quality you expect to see? If yes, then lay off people who can obviously get their work done even if they goof off on the Web once in a while. If not, a big, expensive web-blocking software package won't solve your problem. Chances are your company's goof-offs are doing far more to waste time than looking at Facebook.

Sahara

Cracking down on employees' recreational use of the Internet will not solve the problem. If you want to solve the problem, make sure employees have enough work to do in the first place and make sure they have clear expectations and accountability. Focus on the tasks and the quality of work. We should not be time-oriented. We should be task-oriented, and it is long overdue. Anyone can take five hours on a task, but someone who gets it done right in less time should be properly rewarded--and not with more work, which is what happens in the real world. That is OK if the work is meaningful and not seen as a punishment. I think a lot of jobs have been dumbed-down and management is absent. Don't blame the employees for problems caused by management.

Sue

If an employee is productive, it shouldn't matter if they Web-surf a little at work. The computer is like the telephone. A few personal phone calls are okay. It's not okay to spend hours chatting on company time. If employers pay attention to what the employees are doing and what they're producing, computer misuse shouldn't be a big problem.

Kevin

I agree with Aaron and J. With the birth of PCs and the Internet, work is no longer left at the office. I personally have done loads of work at home, and I know there are millions who do the same, so a little leisure-surfing at work should not be a problem. However, productivity must be paramount.

Jeff

Work has become a 24/7 activity for most of us. If companies could accurately measure the time many of us spend during evenings, weekends, and vacations continuing to work, I think they would be astonished at the amount of additional productivity they are getting. Objectives need to be measurable with the right accountability in place for meeting them. How each individual goes about getting there should be his or her own choice. As most of these posts point out, if you have no accountability and no measurable goals, cyber-goofing is the least of your company's problems.

von

I would insta-quit any company that enforced no surfing.

I spend well over 8 hours a day working, and my 10 minutes on facebook every couple of days helps me feel connected to friends.

You can bet the company isn't complaining when I'm up at 6 am on their e-mail system from my home computer!

Andrew

Speaking of productivity, why are we debating this issue? Employers need to have clear policies and consistently enforce them. Let the employees judge whether the rules are tolerable or not.

Corporate accounting employees after putting in a couple of 50 to 60 hour weeks
to put out quarterly reports--who can blame them? ICU nurses who are supposed to be monitoring vitals on three gunshot victims, two stroke victims, and one drowning victim--bad idea. Factory workers--probably don't have access to Internet during work hours.

Now, let's talk about the fed funds rate cut, long-term effect of U.S. debt load, impact of depreciating dollars on Americans' lives, the effect of petro dollars on global asset inflation, and A. Greenspan's new book.

Samir Kagadkar

As long as an employee is productive and delivers quality on target, it would be unfair to enforce such rules. Today's workplace is not limited to conventional 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. hours and has extremely blurred professional-personal boundaries. When an employee is expected to take work home, why crib on his taking some home to work?

Nicholas Garcia

This world is a bit screwed up on all different levels; this is a good example of how messed up it is. While hard-working humans are building this world, the wages should be lower for those who just use company time to surf the Web for Fantasyfootball. But I can only dream that one day this world will come to its senses and see the real work and give it credit, not the slackers who want to surf the Internet for fantasy football.

Bill

There is a fine line in keeping good associates on your payroll and Web entertainment at work. It not justifiable to make the claim that a business owner should pay you to do something other than your job. That's a straight-line attitude but fair to the employer. But there is also the facility of all work and no play. Adding a little curve in the straight line during a day's work can keep things interesting for an associate. How an individual plays this out falls to one's work ethic. A small diversion here and there that doesn't interfere with your job should not be considered a crime; just keep it small. Everyone needs to break up the day occasionally to relieve stress. Instead of a trip to the water cooler, you check the local weather online, which should not be a problem.

Dante

I'm not too sure of the pro or con verbal jousts. I'm only aware of what I observe personally. From empirical observation: I have a few "managers" who manage strictly on the clock. One even clocks how long you take in the bathroom. Than I have managers who manage strictly on work produced and deadlines but don't care when you come in or leave. Of the two types, the first type can never get anything done on time or correctly. The second type produces work. So off-hand, I would say, stop nagging the employees.

John

The only question that should be asked is, do you finish your work on time with reasonable quality? The idea of an 8 to 5 workday died out with the majority of the factory jobs. Globalization means that we work across international time zones, BlackBerrys mean we work on the go, laptops and VPN access let us work from home. As I put it to my team employees, business partners, and other associates, I expect you to work 24/7, play 24/7, and sleep 24/7. How you time-slice your day is up to you. It is up to management to set productivity goals, and the fact that there is a debate over people slacking at work but still getting the job done seems to indicate that management has overstaffed for the workload at hand or they are simply in a period of slow business.

Andrew

I personally agree with John. We should work, play, and sleep 24/7. It should not be a problem if an employee does Web-browsing all day as long as the work meets the deadline and the quality is met.

I myself can't work if there is no Internet connection, since when I'm feeling bored, a few minutes of Web browsing or Friendster can lessen my stress.

DEZ

Warren Buffet: Focus on what's meaningful, not measurable.

The truth of the matter is that most of us work at least 8 to 11 hours a day.

There are times when we use the phone to conduct personal business--just as we now use the Internet to do the same, and what is wrong with this? Absolutely nothing.

We have dedicated our lives to being somewhere even when we are sick or our children are ill.

We have dedicated our lives to a machine that no longer wants us to act like a human being. If you wanted an entity that never uses the phone or the Net for personal business at any time, hire a computer to do the job.

Think of the number of days and productivity lost because someone needs to take off a day to go to the DMV to renew a driver's license--which can now be done online. Why not let this employee renew the driver's license and get back to work rather than taking off an entire day of work?

So therefore I say, if you have a human being getting the job done with quality ranging from acceptable to more than acceptable, who is reliable and never complains, let him or her surf for a couple of minutes.

You catch far more bees with honey than you do with vinegar. Employees are more likely to be productive if their management is not treating them like children and they receive little perks such as being able to use the company Net for a few minutes a day.

Furthermore, most people are scared of losing their jobs, so they are never really on the Net for that long--it's just instinct and good manners not to abuse things. But of course there are always those rotten apples who spoil it for the bunch.

I say let's monitor ourselves, and we won't need to have forums such as this.

Michael Tuchman

As with anything, let's look at the costs and benefits. How much does it cost a company to monitor such things properly?

The cost is low, and the cost of not ferreting out low-performing cyberslackers can be devastating. I say "Pro."

Charu Puri

Facebook or any other recreational Web site is a modern day equivalent of yesterday's leisure phone calls to friends and family in the free time, so why ban that? The key here is to go there in "free time." Corporations and managers should focus more on creating enough work for employees and encouraging employees to create more work for themselves rather than wasting their time in setting up policies to ban human interactions and fun with technology.

Paul Lambert

Work is work. Personal time is personal time. No employer will agree that employees surf at work. Also employee satisfaction at work is about completing the task as soon as possible. I personally feel excellent if I can finish the task given quickly. My best friend is an owner of IT company, and he does everything to control Internet usage of his workers, because most of them waste more than an hour on browsing Web pages. Some of them even are not be able to concentrate on their work during work time. So, to save productivity, he restricts web surfing with help of Ez Internet Timer (setup browsing time during the lunch only).

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