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02:03 PM

Best Of Listening Post

Bob Geldof once sang, "They're always looking at you." That bit of '80s anxiety is alive today as employers monitor workers' "recreational" surfing in the office.

Here's a convenient new way to segregate humanity. One is either a believer in cyberloafing or not. Nonwork activity online is sapping the economy or, at worst, it's a harmless diversion that doesn't hurt productivity.

There's a debate about the effects of employees dilly-dallying online (Cyberloafing...another view). In the conspiracy of life, the question is small, but scratch the veneer of almost any corporate cog and you're likely to find someone who feels he or she is at peak performance per take-home dollar. Meanwhile, the "C" in CXO might as well stand for cranky these days. CEOs understandably want more margin and they want it now.

Parry Aftab (nom de guerre: the Privacy Lawyer) wrote a few weeks back that companies lose up to $50 billion each year because employees use their computers to goof off ("Cyberloafing And How It Affects Productivity," Nov. 10, 2003). What's more, businesses can be held liable for a laissez-faire policy.

"If a company allows personal use of the Internet at work, there may be union organizing and liability. If you allow Girl Scout cookie sales, you may not be able to keep out alternative-lifestyle discussions," she advises. "Once Pandora's box is opened, all roads lead to litigation and legal risks."

"Arlene Leonard" contends that Internet use hurts productivity. "Is it much different than personal calls at work? Heck, yes. Once you hit your favorite site, you can stay there forever. Especially if what is waiting for you is more database entry. We have had employees terminated for any nonwork computer use."

That sounds harsh, but "Dave Marston" says it's just the beginning. "Restricting Internet access will happen soon and quickly. Competition demands it. In July, Merrill Lynch shut access to Yahoo Mail and Hotmail. It took the other big banks two days to follow. All the arguments go out the window when the company isn't making its numbers because employees aren't producing."

The opposing view, buttressed by skepticism about statistics cited in the debate, holds that people aren't inherently slugabeds. "I feel it is important to challenge surprising statistics that are often delivered by the news media," "Mark Tempel" writes.

He doubts the authenticity of figures others are using to prove productivity-endangering cyberloafing exists. Tempel cites less-alarming figures published by the ePolicy Institute. The institute says a third of workers' online activity is "recreational," he says, not the 50% or more others cite. Even this just shows that "personal use of the Internet occurs," not that it's a problem.

"Cathy O'Daniel" doesn't necessarily want to know if her subordinates are online. "I find it interesting that corporations want to control the calls, E-mail, and time online for personal use," she says. "A bad employee will find ways to loaf."

O'Daniel feels her employees are responsible adults. "If they weren't performing up to par, then, yes, I would watch computer activity, but if their work is excellent, what they do online is up to them. Certain sites are inappropriate at work, but surfing in general, checking the news, shopping a bit, is a nice break from work."

Talk about worries of union organizing: O'Daniel goes on to say, "I don't think enough companies realize that breaks during the workday are good. Breaks give the brain time to refocus, energize, if you will. Taking these breaks should only increase productivity and creativity."

Don't be shy (unless the boss is near when you're reading this), but do be civil in the Listening Post,

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