The Web in the Workplace
by Stevan Alburty

From The Net
November 1995

1995 by Stevan Alburty
    All rights reserved.




Before I became a consultant, I used to actually work for a living.

I had a real job in corporate America and, as an employee, I was always on time, kept long hours and never permitted myself to fall prey to the fraternal demons of idleness and sloth, making sure that every minute of my working day was spent in reverential focus on the goals and tasks to which I was assigned.

(And if you believe that, please contact me if you would be interested in investing your life savings in a Broadway musical I'm writing based on the life of Vanna White.)

In the good old days, all a corporation had to worry about is whether or not its employees were stealing paper clips. Now, the average boss has a veritable cornucopia of concerns - sexual harassment, substance abuse, the resolution of employee grievances through the use of semi-automatic weapons. And now comes the newest worry in the workplace: the Web.

More and more businesses, after having invited the world into their companies through the installation of a Web site, are now giving their own employees outbound access to the Internet. Life has a particularly ugly way of compensating for each new blessing it bestows (as you learned when they warned you about that blindness thing) and so, along with this fabulous new tool comes the usual concomitant dangers.

If you, as an information technology manager or a boss, are thinking about installing Netscape on everybody's computers and are worried that your employees will start downloading sexually explicit material or spending valuable worktime checking out sports scores on the Web, you can relax - they will. There. Don't you somehow just feel better knowing the answer?

Employees are not "human resources." They are people. And people occasionally enjoy being silly and stupid. With the exception of Senator Al D'Amato, they rarely make a career out of it. The question for managers is what your employees will do on the net after they've gotten their jollies by pushing the Really Big Button That Doesn't Do Anything or visiting The House of Socks. (I don't know about these Web sites *personally*, you understand. Somebody told me about them.)

Mike DeValera manages the computer systems for the Charles A. Dana Foundation, a 30-employee philanthropic organization in New York and Washington D.C. that awards grants in the fields of health and education. (They seemed uninterested in funding my musical.)

Internet access there is six months old, and users have found the Web to be "beyond helpful," says DeValera. "We found a list of all of the e-mail addresses of all of the members of the National Academy of Science on the Web." To an organization which gives away money to scientists, this type of find is valuable to donor and recipient alike.

Are his fingernails nibbled to the quick with worry about what sinful or silly sites employees may be visiting? "This tends to be a non-Newt kind of place," he points out, "where contrarian values are not disparaged." Serendipitous exploration is considered healthy and ultimately beneficial to the organization.

Here are three handy maxims for anyone granting net access to their employees:

- Do not drop the net on your users' doorsteps like a foundling. Train them on how to find resources that will be relevant to their work.

- Develop corporate and departmental home pages rich in links to valuable sites and sources of information.

- Draft, distribute, and display a statement of policy regarding the improper use of the Internet, including software piracy, the posting of unauthorized commentary in newsgroups that might be attributable to the company, and sexual harassment through the display of inappropriate content.

Other than that, treat your employees as grown-ups. Of course, if you do not put much stock in personal freedoms and your sense of George is more Orwell than Washington, there are always products like WebTrack, TattleTale, and Surfwatch, which will monitor usage and block access to sites the Corporate Censors deem naughty or noxious.

There is as legitimate a roll for the Web in your workplace as there is for the telephone. Both enable an indispensable connection to the outside world, and both can be abused. Employees do not suddenly turn profligate when exposed to the seductions of the Web; bad work ethics usually manifest themselves in other indentifiable ways. Managers who are nervous about the negative effects of the Web on their workforce are in reality insecure about their own abilities to hire and inspire those in their employ.

When I was a boss, I treated my employees as responsible adults and gave them the latitude to excel in their jobs without the slightest amount of micro-management or interference. (Did I tell you I'm calling my musical Wheel!)