Computers grace the desks of the company receptionist and CEO. They have become standard issue for employees that need to create, analyze or modify data.
But the computers power isnt always being directed into spreadsheets, sales goals or customer service. Take a random glance at a given computer in the office at any time and you might find work-related material, or you might find a flight simulator. Maybe the accounting department is zapping aliens while the office manager is playing Solitaire, and the sales manager is looking at something you cant even describe without being hit with a sexual harassment lawsuit.
Computers have allowed employees to share information, communicate via e-mail, track statistics and play games. Some companies allow workers to play games on their lunch hours or during non-business hours, but how can you be sure whats going on when? Many games have a boss button, which when pressed will either bring up a screen saver, blank screen or something that looks work related.
Internet access for employees has also added to the problem. Online games, chat rooms and other diversions, including pornography sites, are diverting the attention of your work force.
Websites are even getting in on the deception, and many seem to be catering to those who want something more interesting to do while at work. A popular baseball site has a button that brings up a bogus spreadsheet in case the boss should wander in while youre analyzing the pennant race.
You want to make the company computers effective tools, not high-tech toys, but what can you do?
Reasons to watch
It doesnt matter how big or small your company is. You dont want harsh pornography to be distributed or left on a computer, says Stuart Rosove, founder and vice chairman of the board for Sequel Technology, makers of monitoring software for businesses. Its a legal issue. Pornography viewing can lead to sexual harassment claims.
The first reaction might be to use one of the Internet screening programs that have become widely available. The difficult part for Internet users is trying to figure out which sites are relevant to the company. Employees at a medical research company might be perfectly justified searching for sites containing the word breast, while those at a shoe manufacturer probably have no reason to do so.
It doesnt address other electronic problems, such as game playing or e-mail abuse. What if someone e-mails your marketing plan to a competitor?
Management does not have a good way to supervise or view what employees are using their computers for, says James Cofano, president and CEO of Silverstone Software, makers of com.Policy, a computer-monitoring program. Cyber crime is one of the fastest growing problems in business. Managers need to see how employees are using their computers. Maybe they are not using their time wisely, or maybe theyre using the wrong procedures.
Whether a disgruntled employee is sabotaging or deleting files, or someone is using the companys computer for games, these programs can give you a traceable trail to act on.
How they work
Sequels Net Access Manager monitors traffic to and from the Internet down to the individual user. It does not read content, but instead produces the equivalent of a phone bill for the Internet, showing who is using the Internet for how long and for what purpose.
When the product was installed on Sequels own network, some interesting facts came out.
The inside sales team was using the Internet the most, says Rosove. I thought it would be the software development crew. But on further investigation, I found out the sales team was corresponding with customers and doing research. I also found a direct correlation between high Internet use and high sales. I was able to take this to the shareholders and show them how we use this medium for productivity.
Many companies have found that employees are visiting objectionable sites or wasting time.
Im a believer of that which is inspected will improve, notes Rosove. People dont call sex number from work, because they know there is a bill and they will get caught. Weve never had an employee rebellion.
Parameters can be set to match the companys goals, whether to block some sites or limiting surfing to nonbusiness hours. Net Access Manager is designed for Windows NT and some Unix systems, with prices starting at $3,000 to $4,000 for a starter package.
Silverstones com.Policy program takes things one step further. Anything that is on an employees screen, whether an Internet site, a word processing document or a game, can be seen by management.
The foundation of the program is the company policy, notes Cofano. It is important to let the employee know what the expectations are. Most company policies dont cover e-mail or computer use. The employees need to know what they should and shouldnt do.
The program comes with policy templates that assist a company to inform the employees of computer usage rules. Once the software is installed, it collects data from every workstation on its daily use and generates a log of all the programs run, Websites visited and e-mail activity. A date and time for each user are provided.
There are also screen shots of each computer, which can be set up to take a snapshot of each computer screen on average of every 30 minutes. This can be increased to one per minute if a manager thinks there is a problem with a particular person.
The screen shots make it easy for a manager to see what the employee is looking at, says Cofano. If they saw a game and the time was 2 p.m., it might be a problem.
Once people know they are being monitored, theyll postpone doing their brother-in-laws resume.
One analogy by a com.Policy user: We all follow the rules of the road. We drive more carefully when there is a police car behind us.
Users of the software have discovered anything from employees selling drugs over the Internet to high-level managers viewing porn in the middle of the day.
It varies from objectional material to people running businesses on the side to disgruntled employees downloading files before they leave, says Cofano, whose software is targeted for businesses with 50 or more employees.
The program will run on Windows 95 or NT, and starts at a single station evaluation copy for $129 with additional stations added at $50 each in quantity.
There are ways to try to shift employees away from the fun and games and back to the humdrum tasks assigned to them, whether it be through monitoring software, programs that filter Internet sites or even something like DVDs Antigame software, which searches out game files on employees computers and erases them.
But some business owners wonder if this has gotten out of control. Have the employees become so untrustworthy to complete their work that management needs to keep track of their every keystroke?
Most people that resent it are the abusers, says Cofano.
More than likely, these are the same people dodging work with the novel in the partly open desk drawer or a stack of Post-It notes covered with doodles.
It makes people ask themself if what they are doing is relevant to work, and definitely makes them more accountable, adds Cofano.
Games or even an e-mail to mom can help relieve stress or fill the monotony between customer calls, and company policy may even allow for an occasional diversion. An employee who has to explain every minute of work is not productive.
But game playing can be addictive, and companies need to protect themselves from lawsuits that could stem from improper Internet use.
The solution is to find the balance between serving t he company and respecting the employees with a policy that fits into your corporate culture. No one ever said technology was easy.