All Work and No Play?


All play and no work seems to be the motto of some members of Gen Net.

Those employees glued to their computer screens all day may look like they’re hard at work—but chances are, some of them are hardly working. Instead, they’re spending hours surfing the Internet for their personal pleasure: shopping, trading stocks, playing games and even hunting for new jobs.

It’s called “cyber slacking,” and it’s a productivity problem facing employers across the nation. With nearly every office equipped with computers and Internet access, some workers are making it a regular 9-to-5 hobby.

“The temptation is enormous. The whole world is at your fingertips on the Internet,” says Eric Greenberg, director of management studies at the American Management Association (AMA) in New York. “It’s causing an enormous problem with productivity.”

In fact, 68 percent of businesses have experienced operational and expense problems due to employee use of the Internet and/or e-mail, according to a study conducted by the AMA in coordination with The Washington Post last December (1999). The study also found employees were over-extending their lunch hours to have more computer time (29.7 percent), and even having packages delivered to the workplace during the holiday season (26.3 percent).

Another study by surfCONTROL, a Web-filtering software maker, found that 56 percent of general Internet users openly admitted to using the Net for personal reasons while at the office.

Such figures would have shocked administrators at Health Dimensions Pediatric Care Center in Hollywood, Fla., a year ago, but not today. They became believers after secretly testing a Web-use-monitoring program several months ago.

“We thought there was occasional Internet misuse,” says Health Dimensions administrative assistant Beverly Slavick. “Boy, were we flabbergasted. The nurses were shopping online, going into chat rooms and going onto entertainment sites. We simply had no idea how much activity there was. And, that is not what we pay them for.”

Other employers should be on the lookout for similar misuse, according to a recent E-Productivity Summit 2000 conference on “Cyberslacking at Work.” The conference, sponsored by San Diego-based Websense, Inc., a Web-monitoring software maker, presented the following statistics:

  • 37.1 percent of employees surf non-work-related sites constantly during work hours.
  • More than 70 percent of all Internet pornography traffic occurs during the 9-to-5 workday.
  • A company with 1,000 Internet users conducting personal Web surfing just one hour per day could lose upwards of $35 million a yea

“The Internet is the most powerful form of media technology ever,” psychologist David Greenfield told those who attended the conference. “It’s more powerful than the telephone, the TV or anything else. Would you put a television set on the desk of each employee?”

Greenfield emphasized that not all cyberslacking is planned or calculated. According to his research, 80 percent of individuals who surf the Net become so fascinated with what they find there, they lose track of time.

Eric Greenberg of the AMA concurs. “It’s not just shopping and porno sites we need to worry about,” he says. “The truth is you can spend an entire day on the Encyclopedia Britannica site.”

Cyberslacking has become enough of a phenomenon in the United States that it has generated its own irreverant Web site: The site, launched in 1999 by New Jersey graphic designer Mike Kelly, 35, offers tips on loafing on the job, awards for the best slackers, and even a “panic button,” a link which quickly calls up up a work-related site should the boss happen to walk by. The site is supported by advertising.

While some cyberslacking may be amusing, what starts as “goofing off” may lead to more serious problems in the area of legal liability. Greenberg says employers ought to be concerned not just about when workers are using the Internet but how. If one employee chooses to send offensive e-mail or pornographic photos to other employees, the company could be held responsible.

“Say an employee sends fellow employees an e-mail that says ‘Click here for the company’s financial statement,’ but the click actually leads to a porno site,” says Greenberg. “Could the employer be held responsible? That could become expensive.”

So what can an employer do? The AMA has developed a series of recommendations, which follow:

—Use Web-blocking or Web-monitoring software. There are two different types: those that block access to various types of sites, such as those for shopping, pornography, entertainment and investing; and those that snap pictures of an employee’s Web browsing

—Tell workers that their Internet usage will be monitored. Establish policies concerning the use of the Internet and e-mail and make them known to all workers.

—Allow periods of free Internet time during the workday, possibly during the lunch hour or coffee breaks.

—Don’t make Internet access available when it’s not really needed to perform a job. Having it leads to temptation.

At Health Dimensions in Florida, where nurses were caught using the Internet for more than work purposes, managers reprimanded the employees who were involved, but chose not to announce to all workers that they had installed Web-monitoring software. They didn’t have to.

“When we began monitoring Internet usage, we noticed that one of the nurses wasn’t just going on the Internet; she was snooping in administrative files,” says Beverly Slavick. “It just happened that in those files was a memo about our purchasing the software, and she must have seen it. The word got out.

The center has had few problems since. “Occasional e-mail to family and friends is one thing,” Slavick says. “We just didn’t want an emergency call to come in and the nurses to be so busy shopping online, they didn’t have time for it.”