Surf Report: Monitoring Office Web Use

As costs mount for non-work-related Web surfing, companies have begun to take notice.
Alix StuartFebruary 1, 2001

If you believe the hysteria, every employee’s mouse click should be suspect these days. In a recent survey, more than 50 percent of employees admitted to receiving personal E-mails and surfing non-work-related sites at work on a daily basis. Online trading, shopping, and porn sites report that most of their traffic occurs during work hours. And John Conlin, COO of network monitoring device maker eSniff, says of the hundred or so networks on which his company has installed a device: “I’ve never found a clean one — and 70 percent of those had filtering software in place.”

All told, says consulting firm Computer Economics Inc., U.S. companies lost $5.3 billion during 1999 due to recreational Web surfing. Reports of employees being fired for various abuses have become commonplace. Could the Web-enabled desktop be the death knell of productivity?

Unlikely. While time spent online during work hours did increase 32 percent between November 1999 and November 2000, according to Media Metrix, it’s hard to sort out how many of those minutes were for legitimate business purposes and how many were for purely recreational use. Employers, in fact, seem evenly split on whether or not non-work-related surfing compromises productivity. And those who allow employees some personal use don’t seem overly concerned.

Drive Business Strategy and Growth

Drive Business Strategy and Growth

Learn how NetSuite Financial Management allows you to quickly and easily model what-if scenarios and generate reports.

“We try not to give people a hard time for conducting personal business during office hours, provided they are producing and getting their work done,” says Michael J. Provenzano, CFO and vice president of Davox Corp., a customer-interaction software solutions provider in Westford, Massachusetts. He knows from periodic reviews of network activity that there is “a fair amount” of nonbusiness use, such as visits to online brokerages. At Ford Motor Co., where about 150,000 employees use the Internet and E-mail daily, filtering software hasn’t shown “any big patterns of abuse,” says Edward Miller, manager of corporate news.

Companies Remain Vigilant

But that doesn’t mean companies are turning a blind eye. According to an American Management Association survey, in 2000, 54.1 percent of employers monitored Internet activity, while 38.1 percent stored and reviewed E-mail messages. And Brian Burke, a research analyst at IDC, in Framingham, Massachusetts, is forecasting that the $62 million corporate market for blocking and filtering software will grow at an eye-opening 55 percent compound annual rate, to $562 million by 2004.

About 30 companies, including top players Websense, Surfcontrol, and Elron, provide software that allows a company to analyze both Internet usage and E-mail through a customizable set of criteria, according to Burke. ESniff doesn’t block access, but provides detailed management reports based on user-defined specifications. “The focus on many of these products,” says Burke, “is increasing employee productivity, not being Big Brother.”

One practical reason for using filtering devices is to protect network performance. Employee downloads of large music and video files often clog precious pipelines. “We don’t want employees wasting network bandwidth — that affects everybody’s response time,” says Pat Dillon, systems support manager for Chanel.

Dillon installed Elron blocking and filtering software more than two years ago. The company combines the technology with an old-fashioned, paper-based management technique: it asks employees to sign an electronic usage policy covering voice mail, faxes, and E-mail, and lets them know that they will be monitored.

In the few cases of “blatant abuse” he’s found so far, says Dillon, he’s been able to stop the behavior by simply E-mailing the employee with a reminder of the agreement. “We haven’t had to take any disciplinary action, even though the policy says [an employee] could be terminated for such an abuse,” he notes.

Productivity issues aside, monitoring software and related devices may also reduce a company’s risk of lawsuits. An automated scan of all traffic can help eliminate employee complaints about being unfairly targeted, says Minjoo Lee, an attorney at Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison LLP, in New York. And it could be viewed as a good-faith attempt to keep the workplace free of harassment and discrimination (an issue that has prompted multi-million-dollar lawsuits against Microsoft and Chevron, among others).

While technology may facilitate the monitoring of Web surfing and E-mail activity, Lee and others say that having a clear and well-communicated policy regarding Internet usage in place is the single most important step a company can take.

Click Here to Stay Employed

Don’t blame Lycos for slumping retail sales this past Christmas. The company introduced a “panic button” in late November to help employees cover up online shopping expeditions during work hours. “Boss Coming? Click Here Quick!” read a tiny banner in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen. The link, when clicked, instantly brought up a no-nonsense page replete with dummy links and buttons such as “doesn’t get quotes” and “news you don’t need.”

“We gave [shoppers] a fun way to disguise the process without losing their place,” says Lycos vice president of E-commerce Kim Boucher. “They could get right back to their shopping once the danger had passed.”

Score one for productivity. —A.N.