Newswise — How do companies prevent employees from doing something that studies show 80-85 percent of employees do—use their work computers for personal use?

The short answer is "they don't."

Dr. Paul Mastrangelo of Genesee Survey Services in Rochester, NY says non-productive computer use by employees cannot be eliminated because "nearly everybody does it." But it can be controlled to the satisfaction of both employees and management.

While it is true that computers and access to the Internet have enabled employees to become more productive, at the same time they have combined to make it an avenue for employee non-productivity.

Call it cyber-slacking. It's a situation that companies and organizations have tried, and continue to try, to handle. A 2001 American Management Association survey reported that 36 percent of employers review files on work computers, 47 percent review email and 63 percent monitor Internet connections.

But Mastrangelo, who has conducted studies of non-productive computer use with colleagues Dr. Jeffrey Jolton of Genesee Survey Services and Dr. Wendi Everton of Eastern Connecticut State University, says that not all personal computer use by employees is bad and that companies need to take that into consideration.

"A person can use the computer in a highly productive way and still use if for some personal use," he says. "The computer is a tool and employees develop a higher proficiency in operating the computer by using if for personal use as well as work use."

What is needed, he says, is a company computer use policy that provides employees the freedom to use their computers for personal use without interfering with their productivity. At the same time, if employees consider the company's policy too heavy-handed, morale will plummet and the workplace can become strained.

Mastrangelo, an industrial and organizational psychologist, makes a distinction between non-productive and counter-productive computer uses. The latter are organizational taboos, such as sending threatening messages, sexually harassing co-workers, sabotaging financial information and downloading pornography.

On the other hand, personal tasks such as emailing friends, making travel arrangements, doing online shopping, looking up information on the Internet and ordering books fall into the non-productive use category, says Mastrangelo.

His surveys show that most workers use their computer's access to the Internet for non-productive tasks during the workweek and that very few are counter-productive computer users.

"Counter-productive use of the computer in the workplace gets more attention than it deserves, but it's not really representative of what's going on," Mastrangelo says.

He and his colleagues also studied who in the workforce is likely to engage in non-productive work on their computers. "There is a significant tendency for younger workers to be involved in these activities than their older colleagues. Generation X workers—mid 20s to mid 30s—have grown up with computers and use it for entertainment and other things," says Mastrangelo.

Whether it is harmful or not is hard to say. "Some people can easily be distracted and then it can become a problem."

The 2001 National Work Opinion Survey, an annual study conducted by Genesee Survey Services, included a set of questions about computer use at work. One finding, which should concern managers, is that people who are not challenged in their work tend to be non-productive computer users. Also, people who have more stress resulting in the ambiguity of not knowing exactly what his or her role is are more likely to become non-productive computer users, the survey results showed.

"So the challenge to managers," says Mastrangelo, "is to develop a flexible policy for the usual kinds of non-productive computer use. Also, it should clearly define counter-productive uses and the penalties for engaging in those kinds of activities.

The 2001 National Work Opinion Survey showed 71 percent of employees have some kind of Internet access. "With that kind of access, organizations should show initiative and involvement in how their employees use the Internet," Mastrangelo says.

"A successful computer use policy also involves trust," says Mastrangelo. "In the end, management, after explaining its policies, must demonstrate a degree of faith that employees will not abuse the policy. It is also advisable for management to ask employees for their ideas on what a fair policy should be."

But what kind of policy works best? "Most employees want Internet use at work to be professional and not interfere with productivity," Mastrangelo says.

Their study revealed three general "best practices" among Internet accessibility policies. The first is "Learned Free Access," where employees are given full Internet access but are provided training specific to their jobs on how to productively use the Internet. The training also covers policy instruction such as not condoning the viewing of pornography and allowing personal uses of the computer during designated times.

A second approach used by many large corporations provides employees access to its Intranet system. However, instead of denying any information available on the Internet, the organization provides selected Internet sites (for research and general information) through its Intranet system.

A third practice the researchers found was to remove Internet access completely from individual work stations and provide high-speed access at kiosks elsewhere at work, usually near break room or designated areas. This approach provides employees unmonitored access in a way that is unlikely to interfere with daily work.

"There is no one best approach," says Mastrangelo. "But there are some creative and positive ways that companies are dealing with cyber-slacking and Internet use that support both the personal needs of employees and the productivity that management requires in successful organizations," Mastrangelo says.

The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) is an international group of 6,000 industrial-organizational psychologists whose members study and apply scientific principles concerning people in the workplace.

From April 2-4, 2004, SIOP will be holding its annual meeting in Chicago, IL. More than 3,000 top workplace scientists and practitioners will attend and present research on emerging trends, debates and the way people function in the workplace.

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