TCS Daily


Managing to Look Busy

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - May 22, 2006 12:00 AM

Employers are starting to crack down on employee web-surfing. The Chicago Tribune reports:

Companies are starting to ban Web access, block instant messaging services to squash discreet conversations among chatty co-workers and prohibit employees from watching sporting events on their computers. ...

For workers who find themselves unplugged, the experience is very "Big Brother-ish," said an administrator for a large health-care organization in suburban Detroit that instituted a strict policy last year.

"It can be a big barrier if you are trying to research a topic or even order supplies," said the worker, who asked not to be named.

To access the Internet, the worker needs to fill out a form stating the business case and have it approved by a manager before the IT department will grant access.

"It's not timely and is such a pain in the butt," the worker said. And if someone does get online without permission, "you can get in big trouble."

Sell your stock in companies with policies like this one. The management is obviously stupid, and the only employees likely to stay, long-term, in the face of this kind of a policy are those who can't get a job someplace else, someplace where the management is brighter than a bag of hammers.

Well-run companies look at outputs -- how well people are doing their jobs -- rather than simply trying to make sure that employees look busy. And given that U.S. economic performance over the past few years, as Internet usage has boomed, has been excellent, it's hard to believe that this websurfing is really threatening productivity. Instead, I suspect, it's threatening management's sense of control. (After all, if they really cared about people wasting their time with computer technology, they'd ban PowerPoint, not Web-surfing.)

The crackdown isn't likely to last long, regardless. Responding to this story, blogger Bill Quick commented:

This should cause a sudden upsurge in notebook computers equipped with EVDO cards or their equivalent.

Anyway, five years from now, broadband web access will be built into your eyeglasses.

He's right, of course. And that's going to be tough for companies that want to control employee access to the Web. I have a laptop with an EVDO card already, and it's terrific. And I've heard stories about employees in companies with locked-down Internet access setting up pirate wi-fi hubs (which can even be EVDO-powered) to get their fix. As for the broadband eyeglasses, well, that kind of thing is coming. Web-browsing PDAs are already widespread, and we'll see much, much more along those lines, as people get used to being connected wherever they go.

Companies can try to ban this sort of thing, of course, and they'll sometimes be able to succeed. But as access to the Internet becomes more widespread and routine, with cellphones and PDAs morphing into wearable computers and, eventually, Bill Quick's eyeglasses, those sorts of intrusions will be seen as more and more, well, intrusive. Some businesses -- with big trade-secret or national-security issues -- will be able to pull off a complete ban on personal communications and computing devices, but most won't. And the more intrusive the policies seem, the harder it will be to attract bright, creative employees who are marketable elsewhere: Just the kind of people that companies ought to want to hire and to keep.

Ultimately, this issue isn't about employees but about management. Managers tend to resist output measures because output measures require managers to take uncomfortable action: They have to tell the good employees that they're doing a good job (which tends to encourage the good employees to want more money) and they have to tell the bad employees that they're doing a bad job (which tends to make them resentful and unpleasant). Nonetheless, I think that measuring the work done, rather than just whether employees manage to look busy, is going to be the management trend of the future. Success in business, after all, usually has little to do with whether managers are comfortable or not.

Glenn Reynolds is a TCS Daily contributing editor.

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11 Comments

Print this story and staple it to the doors!
This article is terrific.

GHR is correct that this issue is more about management than employees. It is the perfect illustration of the Peter Principle in action - invariably those who have been promoted into upper management are the least competant to be manning their positions.

I work in a place that I like pretty well. When I started working here, in an IT Admin capacity, my machine was actually outside the firewall. It was nice, being able to read and peruse anything I felt the need to - nothing unethical or inappropriate of course, but it was just nice.

Then, a couple of year ago, the tech overlords started utilizing some blocker software, and it just gets progressively more intrusive and draconian with every passing week.

To validate what GHR says, I like this place well enough, but that one policy is annoying enough that it has made me seriously consider looking for employment elsewhere.

Anal-retentive control freaks are probably not the best choice for the responsibility of administering networks on that level.

It's exactly right - the best employees will flee places like that as if from a burning building.

And oh yes, for sure, an EVDO card/account is definitely in my future.

Hear hear...
Fortunetly, my company hasn't lost its mind. They way we task employees is through goals. For my teams I list what deliverables they need to reach by what deadline. We don't punch clocks, I don't watch to see who comes and goes when. I don't insist on 9-5 work hours. I base my schedules on an average of 40 hour work weeks. Sometimes it's more and sometimes less.

Yes, I am fortunate to work in a professional industry where 99% are mature adults who have been in the business for 5+ years. if people don't meet their goals they are coached. If that doesn't work, then they are let go. Good people get promoted. The result is that we are number one in our market.

It's not perfect. Sometimes deadlines are missed and sometimes humans just fail to do their job and we suffer. That's life. We adjust and move on. As my boss said one day after we had a setback and someone proposed an oversight process--"You don't spend $1000 to save $100."

BTW, we are expected to cruise the Net for indutry trends and ideas...

Let's remove telephones, too
My observation is that employees waste far more time making personal phone calls than websurfing. The woman at the desk next to mine has extended chats every day.

Management
I'm guessing that we're not going to see much change in this. We'd all like to see management get better at... well... managing, but I'd challenge you to find some corporate histories from say the colonial era and read what people had to say then.

The more things change the more they stay the same. If you think you can do better, and you probably can, raise some capital and send the idiots back where they belong... the unemployment office.

As for unfettered internet access, here's a simple approach. Track each person's usage via a simple proxy like Squid. Post it on the intranet for all to see. Problem solved. This allows people to do the surfing they need to do while allowing the necessary, yes I said necessary, auditing.

Like another poster mentioned, phone records would be nice too. Trust, but verify.

Short sales?
Can I sell stock in the the State of New York?

Failure to mention...
the other impacts of unfettered internet use.

In the health care field the use of the internet can put to risk patient data through the inadvertant download of malware. Not to mention the huge time and effort it takes for the IT department to fight the never ending battle against it.

It would be simply irresponsible to allow users do as they wish on the internet when the security of your data and the health of your systems is at risk. Perhaps your employee is productive but is he harming the productivity of others as well as putting to risk your client's data?

Phone calls...
So, does she get her work done? If so, then so what?

I liken this to the student that everybody hated in college because he/she came to class on Wednesday only, skipped the rest of the week and still made A's !

The refrain was "it isn't fair!"

Having worked at two places where the employer thought giving you a paycheck meant they owned you, I can see a revolt coming.

I, for one, am tired of the idiots in management who think they have to stick their noses into everyone else's business and that there is no world outside of work.

Slavery was outlawed in 1865. Somebody please see that the American business community is informed of this shocking fact!

Revenge is a dish best served cold
"Slavery was outlawed in 1865. Somebody please see that the American business community is informed of this shocking fact!"

Actually, the American worker is responsible for making the business community aware of this fact by leaving and going to/ or starting up the competition.

The best revenge is to change jobs and see your prior management unemployed.

Revenge
I have changed jobs, due to one of those "restructurings", which saw then lay off 72 people to "reduce costs", then hire back most us at what appears to be 3X the previous costs but with no benefits, and with, say, 45% coverage of the previous areas.

I marvel at how this is called "economizing". Maybe I'm missing something here.

bobham had the correct answer
Management must be graded on their ability to differentiate between activity and work - eschewing activity and delivering work.

Work is defined as accomplishing goals and delivering deliverables - on time, at cost, with customer desired function and quality.

Activity is defined as running around having meetings to discuss and assign blame for the lack of Work being accomplished.

I alienated more than one group of engineers in industry because I demanded Work and refused to accept Activity.

It is funny how that works
I have been there, twice, and I now run the business I once left because of the anal attitudes of the previous managers. We now do twice as much with half the people and no one complains about being "overworked" (except maybe me!). How? I make sure I'm here during all working hours, everyone else comes and goes as they want as long as the job gets done. I don't care if they show up at 6 a.m. or 6 p.m.
I have just two requirements: Get your assigned work done and get right on the next project and be here when I need to meet with you (it is a set schedule and everyone is given at least 48 hours lead time on any "emergency" meeting, no meeting takes place before 1 p.m. so there is never a reason not to be there.).

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