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Web Browsing at Work

By: Matthew Strawbridge - Updated: 6 Oct 2012 | comments*Discuss
Web Browsing Employee Business Personal

Many employers turn a blind eye to personal web browsing by employees as long as it is not excessive. However, if such use gets out of hand, it can impair productivity or harm the reputation of the business. A balance must be struck to ensure that workers feel free and motivated, while protecting the interests of the business.

Common “Unproductive” Browsing

Here are some of the most common ways that people can spend time on the Web when they should be working:

  • reading and sending personal emails
  • bidding on auction sites
  • reading news and blogs
  • playing online games
  • interacting with friends on social networking sites

Other online activities, although not strictly work-related, may not actually impair performance:

  • listening to Internet radio while working
  • Web surfing during lunch and breaks

There may be other considerations, however, such as the increased network bandwidth taken up by such services.

Illegal and Undesirable Content

Suppose an employee commits a crime while working on an employer’s premises, or while using an employer’s computer equipment. For example, if an employee is arrested for accessing illegal online material then the company may face prosecution as well, particularly if the material has been saved to their computer systems.

The Internet is still, in many respects, a wild frontier where laws can be unclear and difficult to enforce. It is international, of course, and countries vary in both their laws and how effectively the authorities enforce them. Because of this, the Web is home to a great deal of content that is illegal in the United Kingdom (such as pirated software, terrorist manuals and child pornography).

Other content, while not necessarily illegal, is undesirable on a corporate network and could be embarrassing for the business if it were discovered.

Blocks and Filters

Some business systems administrators choose to restrict the websites that are available from the company network. Various software filters are available to block access to certain blacklisted websites, or even to restrict access so that only specified work-related sites are made available.

Another approach is to monitor sites for keywords, blocking access to sites that contain these words and alerting the administrator so that action can be taken if necessary.

Getting the Balance Right

The Web can be a fantastic resource for finding and sharing information. When the workforce surfs responsibly, they can find answers to their questions very quickly, and can become more productive than they would be otherwise.

On the other hand, the network harbours any number of distractions from productive work. Perhaps we would all rather be playing games, chatting with friends or bidding on auctions; some people can take these things to the extreme.

The fairest approach may be to notify employees that a log will be kept of all the website addresses they visit. This is likely to discourage workers from doing anything “dodgy” online, and should act as an incentive for them to self-moderate the time they spend on non-work activities. Such a log will be useful should you have to reprimand someone for inappropriate browsing at work.

Think of the Web as a public library full of books. Suppose an employee sneaked out of work shortly after they arrived each morning, and instead went to the local library and began reading books and chatting (in whispers, of course) to their friends. They wouldn’t keep their job for long! And so it is with Web browsing at work – a small amount of personal surfing is probably acceptable, but anything beyond that is unfair to the employer.

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