December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Don`t Look Now, but nearly two-thirds of workers admit to web shopping on the job.

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Productivity losses counted in tens of millions or billions may just be too big to be real to individual companies. But these numbers will be: SurfControl has a formula that lets individual employers calculate how much unauthorized workplace web use is costing them. SurfControl assumes the all-in cost of an office worker is about $33.50 an hour. If an employee spends an hour a day web-shopping, trading stocks or reading the news, that employee costs the company $167.50 a week.

To be sure, some industry watchers don’t see web surfing as a major theft of corporate time. “The web changes the the way we work,” says Bill Gassman, senior research analyst with the Gartner Group, who has discussed this issue with hundreds of companies“Even if an employee wasted 30% of his time web surfing, he might be 70% more productive during the rest of the time through the Internet.”

But lost staff time isn’t the only issue. Most shopping sites don’t currently offer bandwidth-hogging media enhancements such as streaming video or audio. But as they experiment with advanced technologies and data-dense content in anticipation of wider broadband access from homes, they’d be wise to remember that workers will try to access the same features from desktops on the job-increasing unsanctioned demand on enterprise connections.

Most companies have broad guidelines on what constitutes appropriate use of company property, including PC desktops, while on the job. Fewer have had specific policies on the types of web sites to which workers may have access, or when and for how long workers may surf the web on personal business. These policies are similar to the approach companies have taken regarding personal phone calls and emails. Now, larger corporate employers are leading the charge to change web policies. Though about half of employers monitor and/or regulate workplace web access that doesn’t relate to company business, IDC says the figure is higher, 65%, among companies with 1,000 or more employees.

The policies are a patchwork that varies greatly from employer to employer. Some take a hard line, blocking access to non-related work sites with enterprisewide filtering software. That’s the case at OmniGiant, a Sumpter, S.C.-based waste management company, where information systems manager Ron Davis oversees 50 desktops used by 100 employees. Since April, the company has used filtering software by SurfControl to monitor worker’s web use and block access to all categories of web sites, including shopping destinations that aren’t directly related to its business.

The argument that busy workers should be able to use the web for personal errands when putting in long hours doesn’t fly with Davis, who says most of the employees are on hourly wages. “Rather than make the policy overly complicated and give access at certain times, we just block all non-work-related categories. If our employees work longer than their shift, they get overtime and comp time for that. Bandwidth is expensive. We wanted to make sure it’s being used for the purpose we intended.”

It’s another story at Irvine, Calif.-based Canon Copiers. The company has been using Websense’s filtering software for three years. The software monitors use and blocks access to certain categories of web sites, but shopping sites aren’t among them. The primary driver at Canon, as at many employers that adopted filtering software early on, was to protect the company from potential liability by preventing offensive materials from entering the workplace via the Internet. “We don’t restrict access to shopping or financial sites-but we did want to be able to enforce the polices our HR department set out. The software takes the burden of policing off the shoulders of the IT department,” says James Underwood, senior IT director.

Going overboard

Still other employers such as Allen Matkins are looking into the future and coming up with guidelines that try to balance the needs of increasingly time-starved employees with the company’s need to stay productive. The firm has used Websense’s filtering software for two years to monitor employee web use and enforce a policy that bans access to certain sites altogether while managing access to others, including shopping destinations.

“We generally trust our employees to know what’s right, but at the same time, the organization is responsible for making sure that the demands of the clients are being met and that everyone is as effective as they can be during the workday,” says Gillman. “The software lets us be flexible.” Initially, the company used the software to block access to shopping sites across the enterprise, but lifted the ban after six months. Based on monitoring reports, however, the company has blocked shopping selectively for a few web surfing employees who have gone overboard.

Depending on what data emerge to quantify people’s actual shopping and buying behavior online-beyond what employers and employees now believe it is or should be-there’s a good chance that e-retailers will see employers move more aggressively to manage it, especially as technology providers refine software that lets employers fine-tune management with a high degree of sensitivity.

The likely result of greater workplace web scrutiny is greater ability for employers to manage who gets access to what, when and for how long, say industry consultants. With new, more sophisticated filtering software, web access may, for example, be limited by a worker’s title, time of day, day of week, desktop location, category of site or file type. E-retailers already working to streamline search and buying processes for customers in a hurry are positioned to fare well when and if employers ramp up workplace shopping rules.

But though workplace web shopping could one day be more regulated, given the inexorable march of the Internet into both commerce and daily life, it’s clearly here to stay. “Internet access is a benefit I’m going to give my employees, because I want them to feel happy about where they’re employed. So you put some boundaries on it-even a 401k’s got limits on what you can put in,” says Geiger. “It’s just like any other benefit.”

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