Web filtering: computer says no?

Instead of focusing on the job at hand, have you been checking the football results while at work, getting in a bit of online shopping or just simply chatting to your friends on IM? Well if its not related to your job, then some employees may soon be trying to put a stop to it by using web filtering technologies to block your access to websites or applications they deem inappropriate.  

Bloxx®, based in Scotland, is one such Internet filtering company who have developed technology allowing organisations to have better control over their employees, pupils, etc. use of the Internet. Bloxx is currently celebrating after winning the ‘Innovation and Technology’ award at the Edinburgh Evening News Business Excellence Awards but is web filtering at work good news or bad news?

This thorny issue of employee trust versus control was recently discussed during the keynote opening at Microsoft’s Tech.Ed, in Sydney. Anne Kirah, Microsoft Senior Design Anthropologist (?) said:

Companies all over the world are saying, oh, you can’t be on the internet while you’re at work. You can’t be on instant messaging at work…” she said. “These are digital immigrant ideas.”

Kirah defines ‘digital immigrants’ as people who were not born into the digital lifestyle and view it as a distraction rather than an integral part of life. The younger generation of workers have been using computers and mobile phones since birth and she calls them ‘digital natives’.

Kirah believes the conflict often arises because the employers’ benchmarks of productivity are based on something that doesn’t exist anymore.

 “In the old world we measured productivity by just sitting your butt down 9 to 5. We were coming to work 9 to 5, what else would you do at work except work? And I’m still of that mindset myself because I am of the older generation. I find it very difficult when I’m bombarded by instant messages, I find that I just fracture, but that’s just me. But what often happens is that we translate our own experiences and say ‘well, I can’t do it so nobody else can do it. If they’re doing it, it must mean they’re not focused.”

“What we actually find is that these kids have grown up with it; they have grown up learning how to be social and work at the same time, that’s what they did when they did their school homework before they got their first job.” 

“I think the whole point is that there’s a cultural change going on. And it’s not really a complete change because if you remember back to the 9 to 5 job, you’re still placing calls to the doctor because you can’t call [the surgery] after 5 pm, because it’s closed. Or you want to call the store up to find out if they’ve got something. Or you might get a call from a friend or make a quick call. The thing is, when it’s visible it becomes more obvious.”

“In the UK, somebody had been fired because they were reading a newspaper online and doing these behaviours that are considered wrong. The judge actually went in favour of the employee, saying: ‘what’s different between what that person is doing online and what we’ve always done, which is read the newspaper for five minutes during a break? What’s different from us making that phone call?’ So he couldn’t see the difference. The measurement of productivity is what you produce not how you spend your time.”

Source: APC Start

Some companies like Virgin Money have decided to address this issue head-on in a unique way by replacing the traditional tea break with a new “e-break”.  The company has introduced the 15 minute employee “e-break” in addition to a lunch hour. It means that employees are allowed to go shopping and other online personal tasks daily at 11am. Its scheme followed an independent survey of 1,223 office staff which showed 56% bought or sold goods over the net during work time. 

In the same keynote, Microsoft’s Australia’s Group Manager of Technical Communities Frank Arrigo said

people were so frustrated with limited internet access at work that they were finding their own workarounds anyway. People were increasingly making use of anonymous proxies that couldn’t be easily blocked by corporate firewalls, bringing in their own wireless broadband services for use with a personal laptop or with a work PC or accessing instant messaging via mobile phones and PDAs.

Bill Gates said years ago that if you worry about internet productivity, you’re worrying about people stealing pens from your stationery cupboard… there are bigger things to worry about.”

Recently I was working on a client site that blocked nearly all access to the internet. The developers in their frustration would bring in their own laptops and tunnel back to their home PC’s in order to get full and free access to the web!

I understand there is a need for a balance between trust and control but which end of the spectrum does your company choose and can it actually hinder productivity by blocking access to legitimate sites which then involve lengthy calls to the IT department to remove the blocked access.

Hopefully your computer doesn’t say no!