Monday, November 30, 2015

Should you allow employees to shop online from work?

Today is Cyber Monday, the day online retailers promote their (alleged) deepest holiday discounts. It is estimated that more than 125 million Americans will take advantage of these sales and shop online today. And, many, if not most, of them will do so from work.

The latest available numbers suggest that more and more companies are allowing employees to shop online from work. As of 2014, 27% of employers permit unrestricted access to employees shopping online while at work, up from 16% in 2013 and 10% and 2012. Meanwhile, 42% allow online shopping but monitor for excessive use, while 30% block access to online shopping sites. Similar data is not yet available for 2015, but one can assume that these numbers have continued to trend towards greater access for employees.

Yet, just because companies allow a practice to occur does not mean it makes good business sense. Should you turn a blind eye towards you employees’ online shopping habits, not just today, but across the board? Or, should you permit more open access?

You answer should skew towards greater access. I advocate for fewer restrictions for personal Internet use at work for two reasons: it provides a nice benefit to employees, whom we ask to sacrifice more and more personal time; and, it’s almost impossible to police anyway.

We no longer live in a 40-hour work week, 9-to-5 world. Employees sacrifice more and more of their personal time for the sake of their employers. Thus, why not offer some Internet flexibility both to recognize this sacrifice and to engage employees as a recruitment and retention tool?

Moreover, it is becoming increasingly difficult for employers to control what their employees are doing online during the work day. Even if an employer monitors or blocks Internet traffic on its network, all an employee has to do to circumnavigate these controls is take out his or her smartphone. By trying to control employees’ Internet habits, employers are fighting a battle they cannot win. The iPhone has irreparably tilted the field in favor of employees. It not worth the time or effort to fight a battle you cannot win.

Instead of fighting a losing battle by policing restrictive policies, I suggest that employers treat this issue not as a technology problem to control, but a performance problem to correct. If an employees is otherwise performing at an acceptable level, there is no harm is letting him or her shop online from work, on Cyber Monday or on regular Wednesday. But, if an employee is not performing, and you can trace that lack of performance to Internet distractions or overuse, then treat the performance problem with counseling, discipline, and, as a last resort, termination. Just like you wouldn’t bring a knife to a gun fight, don’t bring a technology solution to a performance problem.

As for me, I’m hunting for Legos, Friends for Norah and Star Wars for Donovan. Please don’t tell them.