Over the weekend, while reviewing e-mail and watching the Greater Hartford Open (sorry, the "Travelers Championship"), I came across a post about the "Tiger Effect".  We all know how popular Tiger Woods is for tournaments and television ratings, but last week’s U.S. Open playoff set some records as well: Computer usage and internet traffic spiked in the early afternoon (Eastern Time) just as the U.S. Open playoff was getting exciting.

The Arbor Networks blog has a detailed report and provided this chart that shows the corresponding increase:

Now, it doesn’t take a computer degree to determine that the vast majority of this internet traffic watching the playoff came from workplace computers.  After all, without televisions at their desks, workers used the internet to keep up on the hole-by-hole progress.  No doubt, several IT managers at companies got a few more gray hairs figuring out whether the bandwith could keep up for essential company business.

This "Tiger Effect" is just another type of incident where workplace computers get used for something other than work. No doubt we’ll hear stories in afew months about "Cyber Monday", that first Monday after the Thanksgiving holiday that ostensibly starts the "online" holiday shopping season as well. 

So what’s a company to do about this?  There are four steps to consider:

  1. Establish an enforceable computer and internet usage policy and distribute it to employees.  Outline acceptable usage and not.   If some personnel use is allowable, spell it out in clear terms like: "Limited personal use of some of these communication means is permissible, as long as it is consistent with conscientious job performance, such as a occasional, short electronic mail home."  But outline examples of what is not accecourtesy morgue file "keyboard"ptable as well, such as game playing, entertainment downloading, shopping and non-business-related research.
  2. Along with a computer usage policy, outline a computer monitoring policy as well. This is critical in Connecticut which mandates that employers tell employees about certain electronic monitoring under most circumstances. I’ve discussed monitoring policies in this prior post.
  3. Followup on your monitoring policies. There is little good that comes from having a computer usage and monitoring policy if you don’t enforce it.   While I’m not suggesting a "big brother " approach to watching employees every step, monitoring overall statistics on usage and violations can determine how widespread an issue computer usage for personal use really is.
  4. The last step is ultimately the most important — and most challenging — one: Enforcement.  Many companies are willing to live with a certain level of personal use to keep employee satisfaction up and to address a tacit belief that there will always be some unproductive moments in the workday.  After all, it wasn’t too long ago that "smoking" breaks were much more common than they are today.  And ultimately, if an employer is forbidding a few employees from the computer but not others, it creates a morale problem for employers.  Locking down computers too much, however, may take away the benefits of computers as well. For example, cutting off "video" from usage, may prevent employees from using online training programs, etc. Ultimately, working with the IT department to determine how widespread of an issue "personal use" is and developing an individualized approach on what will work best for that particular company, may be a workable approach.

As with all of these types of human resources issue, understanding the legal boundaries in the area is an important step to developing a workable and enforceable computer usage policy.  Seeking legal advice in this area should help avoid the pitfalls that exist.