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Should You Block Employee Web Surfing?

While drafting this post, I’m listening to an Internet radio channel on I’m also checking Twitter occasionally and using the Web for text, video and audio references related to this post.

Of course, I’m working on this article at home. I’m well aware that if I were writing this in a typical workplace, I might not be permitted to use these information channels so freely.

The Knee-jerk Nature of Access Policies

Government entities are famous for blocking access in an instant. Usually, some unfortunate security event occurs and, suddenly, USB drives are blocked, social media access is denied and employees see frequent pop-ups describing the extent to which they’re subject to monitoring.

Businesses and other organizations often set similar policies, again usually after being burned by a security breach. But employees often push back against what they see as an Orwellian working environment.

How do you find the right balance between security and bandwidth concerns, and employees’ need to access the Web? For many companies, it comes down to a debate about blocking high-bandwidth or gambling sites and requiring employees to obtain permission before they use social media. Such debates often yield frustration all around. The employee might not understand the company’s concern(s), and the company might not understand the extent to which the new rules limit employee productivity.

An Argument for Trust
So let’s first reposition our thinking based on some points from Dan Pink’s book Drive, as highlighted in this YouTube video, which is also currently up for a Webby Award. (We pause to observe that many folks will have to wait till they’re home to access this short URL or this video.) A primary thesis in Drive is that employees performing mechanical tasks will be motivated by a bonus system, whereas the best creative work is obtained without a bonus structure.

For those employees motivated by individual or team-based merit pay systems, Web usage would in theory self-police, assuming the incentive system is designed and implemented properly. A person rewarded for completing tasks simply won’t surf the Web because he or she will be concerned with earning the bonus, getting rated highly, or being retained and promoted.

Those performing more high-cognition or creative tasks will benefit from unfettered access to the Internet. If the organization expects an employee to create that top-notch proposal or land that ground-breaking sale, then having access to your competitors’ and customers’ YouTube videos, reports on HighBeam, profiles on LinkedIn, etc., all make sense. Heck, a reward program for finding the juiciest competitor info may be a worthwhile new initiative.

Use the Right Tools to Protect Your Company
So how do we address bandwidth, configuration management and other issues of IT folks? We may not block sites like YouTube or Hulu, but we may place rate limits on them. Give IT folks the tools they need to adequately protect the network, make sure antivirus and firewall software is installed and up-to-date, and enforce good password policies. Invest in imaging software, or tools such as Ninite or FreeApps, so that IT or users can quickly reconfigure machines if they become corrupted by malware.

In the end, limiting Internet access risks harming morale and/or your employees’ desire to contribute. They may wonder: If you don’t trust me to use the Internet responsibly, what will you trust me with?

Copyright (c) 2011 Studio One Networks. All rights reserved.


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