In-Office Internet Use: The Case for a Free-for-All

Many offices have Internet use restrictions that are enforced by setting the network in the office to keep certain sites off limits. For instance, many companies make it impossible for any employee in their office to access social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram. One company I know of has the office network set to even restrict access to Pandora, the well-known online radio.

I recently came across a column by Cheryl Conner on on the amount of time people waste at work, including by surfing the Web: “Sixty-four percent of employees visit non-work related Websites each day. In this category, the amount of time wasted per week on non-work related Websites is as follows:

Time Wasted by Percentage of Employees

<1 hour: 39%

1-2 hours: 29%

2-5 hours: 21%

6-10 hours: 8%

10+ hours: 3%

Contributing to these percentages are social media networks. The winners for the time-loss warp are Tumblr (57 percent), Facebook (52 percent), Twitter (17 percent), Instagram (11 percent), and SnapChat (4 percent).”

It is this well-known ability of the Internet to facilitate the straying of minds that leads companies to cut off access to some sites. The problem is many of the same sites employees visit for fun are also the places they go (or could go) to get a hand with their work.

Just as employees 30 or 40 years ago had a rolodex on their desk that they thumbed through to find contacts to call, employees today might look through their list of contacts on social media sites. In that case, you could argue, allow employees access to LinkedIn, but not the other social media sites. The reason that isn’t a solution is the same contacts you have on LinkedIn (or any other social media site) aren’t the same contacts you necessarily have on another site. If for no other use, social media sites function as today’s phone books or address books.

Social media sites, and sites an employee might visit for fun such as Flickr, also can lead to productivity. There is an emphasis at many companies on inspiring innovation. The creativity and new ideas that lead to innovation can come from many sources—including looking at entertaining photos or videos on YouTube. Ideas also can come from listening to online radio. Maybe hearing a song from the employee’s childhood will help him recall a product he used to love that one of your products could take characteristics from, or use as a model.

Sometimes the mind needs to take a break, even if there isn’t enough time for the body to take a walk outside. The Internet, in all its varied forms—including entertaining ones—can provide the perfect mind break. One thing I like to do that some would consider wasteful, but I consider the perfect mind break, is using Google Images to look at pictures of animals. I sometimes do this every few hours for maybe five to 10 minutes to refresh my mind. I often find after stepping back from the task I was immersed in, I can look at it with fresh eyes. My re-set eyes then are able to notice mistakes I missed before, or even see that I was taking the assignment I was working on in a wrong direction. And just as a person can be inspired by a song to think of a new idea, the pictures of animals in nature sometimes spur my brain to think about an issue in a new way.

In addition, use of the Internet can help an employee balance her time, relieving the stress associated with a packed schedule. Many of us don’t have much time (or energy) for errands after work. For that reason, the laundry list of errands that need to get done after-hours on a weekday can inspire distracting stress. I’ve found my mind freed up to focus on my work after taking care of needed purchases online that I would otherwise have to bother with after work. You might argue I could just use my phone or computer at home to place orders, but, like many workers who have spent the day in front of a computer screen, my eyes after a long day need a rest. It’s easier—and more pleasant—to take care of online tasks while you’re already online during the course of your workday.

The last reason to offer unrestricted access to the Internet in your office is the message that restricted access sends—that you don’t trust your employees to manage their time. Internet restrictions send the message that you have an office more interested in creating barriers than opening up spaces (literal, figurative, virtual, and off-line) where employees can travel for inspiration.

As I’ve noted in other blogs, what matters most is whether each employee is producing quality work on time. If that employee, who came up with that brilliant idea last week, wants to spend an hour a day listening to cats meow-sing pop songs on YouTube, isn’t workplace brilliance worth a few singing cats?

What is your company’s in-office Internet use policy? Do you restrict access, or are high-performing employees free to use the Internet any way they choose?