Anti-Buzz: You Can Stop the Signal

by Andrew Emmott on July 24, 2012

in Anti-Buzz,Internet

Last week I spoke very generally about the persistence of “bad” Internet. The payoff this week is to make the discussion more practical, and to help you consider what is at stake when you set policy for Internet access and use in your office. There are no perfect solutions. Internet use at work, and the rules governing it, are really a matter of office culture, and every office is different; you are trying to balance safety, privacy, professionalism, practicality and morale. Here are things to consider.

Should you have Internet in the office at all? Yes. And I probably don’t need to work very hard to convince you. Not having Internet access in your office today would be like not having a telephone number in days gone by. If you don’t allow general Internet use in your office, you will find yourself in the 20th century, with phonebooks and business cards and written memos and take-out menus and bulletin boards. Of course, if you do allow it, you find yourself in the 21st century where your employees kill time on Facebook when they should be working. The Internet can be a big distraction, sure, but we should enumerate some of the basic practical benefits of providing access in your office so that we don’t forget why we’re here:

  1. E-mail communication, both among employees and from customers.
  2. Information for troubleshooting issues around the office. “Could you look up how to fix a paper jam?”
  3. Answering customer questions about other local businesses. “Where’s the nearest post office?” “Do you have the number for that book store down the road?” This is huge if you want to refashion your front desk as more of a concierge and less of a paper pusher – because hopefully you have less and less paper these days.
  4. Managing your website or other online presences. “While I’m thinking about it, update our webpage to say we’ll be closed next Monday.”
  5. Communicating with the other businesses you work with, (Bank, Insurance, Plumber, Collection Agency, etc.)
  6. Figuring out where you’re going for lunch.

How should I limit Internet use? So the other side of the coin is that while the Internet is sort of like the phone of yesteryear, it’s also sort of like television, and you don’t want your employees entranced by it all day when there is real work to get done. It is of course reasonable and expected that you should have some policy governing legitimate use, and you can back this up with content filters or other technology, (more on those in a moment). However, don’t think that a good policy is as simple as “professional use only”, though that is a good standard to tell your employees to aim for.

“Professional use only” breaks down pretty quickly in the face of human employees, especially considering that your dental practice is by nature a small business and expected to have a more personable office culture. A rigid policy might be appropriate if you have an epidemic of unprofessional Internet use however. How flexible should you be? Is it inappropriate for an employee to spend 15 minutes on personal matters during a break? There might come a morning where an employee will have more peace of mind and be more focused if they can just get some light banking out of the way. Maybe an employee is about to pick up their kids after work but needs to look up directions. Maybe you want to compare menus of various Chinese take-out restaurants. Maybe one morning somebody is just dying to show off the latest funny cat video – in the name of employee morale, is that so wrong? Of course, policy can be flexible, and can allow for reasonable exceptions to the standard, but the technology you want to use might not be so understanding.

Can I block certain kinds of websites? Yes. A content filter in your office is advisable, but be aware that it can be too aggressive and is not a substitute for good policy and culture. A filter does offer some ground floor advantages, though. First, it serves as malware protection, which is important given the risk of general-use Internet in the hands of many employees. Second, you can filter out the more egregious content of the Internet without flinching; this isn’t so much out of fear that your employees would actively seek out offensive content while at work, but in an age of pop-ups and fishy links, it might seek them.

Many filters offer categorical filtering, so you can narrow down what you consider professional and what you don’t, but be careful. First, any of the reasonable, human exceptions above need to be accounted for by your filter. Also, categorical filters can be capricious. A terrific example is the content aggregator reddit, which is very much the sort of site you would like to block in your office, but it is owned by Conde Nast and frequently finds itself categorized as “news and information” or similar, thus defeating many content filters. On the other side, you might find the legitimate-use websites might be, for whatever reason, blocked by your filter. Also, you might want to block social media – but if you have a facebook or twitter profile that you use to interact with the public, it seems silly to lock yourself out of it at your office. It is better to err on the side of permissiveness and instead let your own rules and discipline do the filtering for you.

How can I monitor what my employees are doing? Aside from looking over their shoulder? You can do quite a bit. You can examine browser histories, but a savvy employee might delete theirs. You can probably arrange with either your service provider or your IT staff to obtain a full history of Internet use, but it makes for dull reading and does not connect websites to the employees that use them. If you want to track individuals, you will need to have your network set up to require logins, and for each employee to have their own username – then details of their sessions can be tracked. This might not be feasible for your office, or it might be easily done, depending on your current set up and your access to quality IT. If you have mechanisms in place to track Internet use, treat it like you would a drug test: you aren’t going to use it everyday, but you have it ready in case someone makes you suspicious. If employees are concerned about privacy in the face of such monitoring, remind them that if they stick to professional use only, they won’t have anything to worry about; in other words, having a mechanism in place to monitor use will deter inappropriate use without losing the flexibility of frequent reasonable exceptions.

At the end of the day, you have tools at your disposal, but there is no magic technology solution to the problem of monitoring Internet use in your office. It needs to be a matter of office policy. Communicate expectations, and keep the matter an open dialog.

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