Tracking Cyberslackers

Managers are using monitoring software to ensure employees stay on task at their computers. Does doing so improve productivity or inspire mistrust?

by / July 17, 2001
Several years ago when Leonard Martin, city manager of Edmond, Okla., recognized his employees could benefit from Internet access, he simultaneously acknowledged the possible impact on employee productivity. With 575 full-time equivalent employees serving a suburban area with a population of 68,000, Martin realized that he and his staff had a responsibility to their constituents to remain productive and to use the Internet responsibly. "As [part of] the public sector [we had to be sure] employees were not surfing the day away," he said.

So Martin installed monitoring software on his employees computers.

Martin is not alone in his concern over whats commonly referred to as "cyberslacking." According to a survey, 84 percent of the nations workers admit to sending personal e-mail from work and 90 percent admit to indulging in recreational surfing from the office. According to a Gallup survey conducted for The Marlin Co., workers spend an average of 75 minutes a day making personal use of company technology.

But the problem is not just behavior; it is attitude: A 1999 USA Today survey found that 63 percent of users believed that time lost to personal communication at work is "not a big deal if they make up the time in other ways."

Additionally, the cyberslacking activities of a few employees can have consequences for the productivity of other, more diligent employees. Those sending bulky e-mail to a number of recipients can cause slower response times of non-Internet applications that draw on the same server resources.

Viewing Internet pornography remains the top concern of employers, but the range of cyberslacking includes several more innocuous behaviors. Employers have found employees spending undue time participating in online auctions, investigating and trading stocks with any of several online brokerage houses, participating in online gambling, conversing in chat rooms and via instant messaging, or playing computer games.

Get Back to Work

According to an InternetWeek survey, the most common methods used for dealing with cyberslacking are instituting Internet usage policies, restricting Internet access, using content filters, or doing nothing at all. These approaches, whether used individually or together, either impose restrictions on Internet usage that can limit productivity or leave managers with no objective way to collect and assess their employees Internet usage.

For some agencies, however, using monitoring software is proving more useful. It monitors a users interaction with the Internet and programs on the network and desktop, and it reports this activity to the employee, the manager or both.

After experimenting with other software packages that produced cumbersome -- and therefore seldom-used -- management reports, Martin settled on monitoring software from Accountability International in DeSoto, Texas. This ASP-based software allows managers to select an amount of time per week that each employee is permitted to spend on the Internet. A running status bar then allows the employee to monitor how much Internet time he or she has remaining for that week.

"A lot of productivity is burned up on the Internet, and by good employees," said Martin, who has found it difficult to resist occasional surfing himself. "Im spending less time on the Internet because that little clock bugs the hell out of me," he admitted, explaining that some surfing is valuable, but limits are necessary. "The Internet is the food of business; [monitoring] is kind of like my belt that gets a little tight on me."

"As soon as people see how they spent time, they change how they spend time," agreed Louis Woodhill, CEO of Scalable Software in Houston, Texas. Scalables Survey software product monitors usage of all computer software, not just Internet usage, and generates reports designed for use by employees and managers.

Were Watching You

Managers must be careful introducing monitoring software to their employees in order to receive maximum participation and minimum conflict. "Everyone deserves a certain amount of privacy, even if they step over the line," said Michael Shevelev, president of Trisys Inc. in Florham Park, N.J., another company that produces monitoring software. His product produces a report showing the breakdown of time spent in specific applications, but will not produce a screen shot of Web sites surfed, a copy of e-mail sent or a record of purchases made online.

Shevelev suggested that employers explain the effect cyberslacking has on everyone and emphasize the importance of the data gathered when introducing monitoring software to the group. For example, a monitoring product will not just report inappropriate behavior, it will also show the number of employees using a popular software product, ensuring that the office has purchased enough licenses to legally cover its use. Monitoring software helps to check network performance by showing which activities are bandwidth hogs. Employees may justifiably feel that listening to music downloads through the Internet while working is a harmless activity, but a monitoring product may show that such activity slows the network and eats away at the performance of even those employees who do not indulge in the practice.

Likewise, government offices that make use of independent contractors may find monitoring software to be a benefit in managing those solo workers. Shevelev said it may allow offices to check in on the activities of telecommuters. Scalable Software even has a specific version of its Survey software built for contractors that helps ensure that the hours billed on an invoice were actually spent on the project contracted.

Ultimately, a monitoring product will not eliminate lost productivity in the office. These solutions, however, give diligent employees a chance to check their own behavior and managers a way to objectively tell the hard workers from the cyberslackers. When it comes to increasing productivity, that may be the name of the game.