Setting a Realistic Web-Use Policy

To keep employees from going overboard with personal Web surfing, issue a set of guidelines, then consider installing monitoring software

I've given approval for my employees to occasionally use our work computers for personal things, such as e-mail. However, I suspect that one or two of them take advantage of my tolerance and waste a lot of work time on hobbies such as following professional sports, and even downloading movies and TV shows. What can I do?

--D.O., Prescott, Ariz.

Most entrepreneurs find that their employees' productivity has increased since they shifted major business functions online. However, employees staring at Web-enabled computers all day can find lots of ways to spend time on them that have nothing to do with their jobs. In fact, a recent study showed that on average more than 81 minutes of work time per employee is wasted doing nonwork-related computer activity. And as many as 13% of employees rack up more than two hours of blown time per day either in computer recreation or personal online activity.

Interestingly, and contrary to popular belief, it is often a company's top employees who waste the most time on their work computers, says Adam Schran, chief executive and founder of Ascentive, the software company that did the survey. The Philadelphia-based small business sells computer monitoring software originally designed for parents to check up on their kids' activity online. Increasingly, it is finding a market selling a similar product to employers anxious to find out what their employees are doing at work, Schran says.

"Ever since the Internet increased in popularity, there's been a growing problem with employees doing things like checking sports scores, playing games, looking for jobs, sending personal messages or chatting with friends, and even watching YouTube," he notes. "Not all companies have their computers enabled for those functions, but for those who do, they nearly always find that it's an issue."

Surfing Boundaries

You are smart to have built in some tolerance for your employees to take a few moments during lunch or breaks to e-mail their kids, check news sites, or make stock trades online. As work time and personal time have blurred at many highly competitive companies, employers often expect their employees to be available via cell phone or BlackBerry any time of the day or night. So it's only fair for them to allow their workers to use their computers to get certain personal things accomplished, much as they might sometimes take personal calls on the job.

The key is to limit that personal computer time just as you would those personal calls. But where an entire office can typically overhear someone taking a personal call at her desk, it's often difficult to know what an employee is doing on her computer unless the boss is looking over her shoulder all day. This is where Internet monitoring software, which watches all the PC and Internet activity happening on work computers and laptops, can come in handy. "Usually within five or 10 minutes of deploying our software, we will find serious things going on that the employer was not aware of," Schran says.

Fair Warning

Before you purchase monitoring software, however, draw up a computer-use policy for all employees. Don't be shy about spelling out prohibited activity. "Many employers are afraid to say anything about the time-wasting because they don't want their employees to feel that they are suspicious," Schran says. Remember: You have the right to monitor your employees' activity while you are paying them to work for you. Just letting them know that you have a policy in place can put them on notice about spending large amounts of time on computer activities that are clearly unrelated to work.

If you decide to go ahead and purchase monitoring software, notify your employees that you are doing so. "Even if somebody's really screwing around at work, notifying them that you'll be watching stops a lot of the problems up front," Schran says.