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Is Internet Access At Work A Good Thing?

Apparently, James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar) got his first big break making special effects for a 1980 sci-fi ‘B’ movie called Battle Beyond the Stars, a low-budget space opera in which George Peppard and Robert Vaughn struggle to save a planet of peaceful farmers from an oppressive overlord. Don’t believe me? It’s all at

Also, on 12 November 1970, an eight-ton sperm whale beached itself at Florence, Oregon, USA. After taking advice from the US Navy, State officials decided it was too big to move so planted half a ton of dynamite under the carcass, meaning to blow it into small pieces which could then be cleared up by humans or devoured by hungry seagulls. The resulting explosion threw pieces of whale well over 200 metres from the beach, damaging parked cars though fortunately not injuring anyone. Naturally if you go to you can watch the whole thing, captured live by a local TV crew.

If movie trivia and viral videos aren’t your thing, you could of course visit the social media platform of your choice (ok then, Facebook) and catch up with that great long list of people you met somewhere, at some point in your distant past, plus your dozen or so actual friends. Perhaps they’ve been through a transformative life event you need to know about. Reaching level 19 on ChefVille is no mean feat.

All of the above I learned this morning while browsing random corners of the worldwide web from my desk at work. Without internet access, I would have known none of it (except for the plotline of Battle Beyond the Stars, which was frequently shown on telly in the mid-80s, much to my adolescent delight). Yet without internet access I would still be staring at a blank screen, rather than being a third of the way through a blog post about internet access at work.

As a writer, having instant access to a world of information and ideas makes my job a whole lot easier. When, as a young news reporter, I needed some background on the Royal Train to flesh out a series of articles on a forthcoming visit by the Queen to my patch, I spent a morning on the phone until eventually getting hold of an expert who, it turned out, used to drive it. If I were writing the same piece today, I would have all the information I needed - and more - in a matter of seconds.

On the other hand, one of the many tabs open in my browser right now has Facebook in it. As I work from home and only get paid for the work I hand over to my customers, that’s my choice. But what if I were in an office, on an hourly wage?

It’s a major consideration for employers everywhere. If the job you’re paying someone to do, can be done without internet access, why should you provide internet access at their desk? Needless to say, researchers have been busy looking into the problem. Recruitment consultants Hays conducted a survey down under and found that a fifth of Australian job-seekers would turn down an offer of employment if they learned they would be denied access to Facebook during the working day. 1

So for some workers at least, the ability to make appropriate use of the internet during the day is as much a given as the freedom to get up and go to the toilet without permission - though that itself is even today not always guaranteed. So the argument goes, if you’re trusted to have today’s newspaper resting on your in-tray, or a mobile phone in your handbag, then you should be trusted to have access to the internet on your desktop computer and to know when and when not to use it.

The issue isn’t whether you should be able to update your Facebook status constantly during the working day, or spend hours levelling up on ChefVille, but that if you do have time to yourself, you should be able to do so if you wish. The question then becomes one of personal time management, and its flip-side, your line manager or employer’s willingness to let you manage your time for yourself.

Internet entrepreneur David Allison has blogged about his experiences in managing internet access among the growing staff of a young company. 2

“The culture that I always wanted centered around personal responsibility ... If an employee wanted to pull up non-work sites that was fine as long as it didn't interfere with their job performance. When we had under a dozen employees this was really easy. We worked in cramped offices and none of us had any real privacy, myself included,” he writes.

As his company grew, that verbal agreement among the staff was swapped for a set of policies in a written employee manual, but the emphasis was still on personal responsibility: “If someone wanted to pull up ESPN at lunch or chat with some friends through AIM we didn't have ‘electronic counter measures’ in effect to prevent that. This did create the opportunity for abuse though. Being a ‘boss’ meant that I suddenly had a new talent: I could walk up to some people's cube and the second I appeared their browser window would minimize. I became a human minimize button.

“Not everyone did this of course. The people that I respected the most would leave what they had on their monitors up, not really caring that I saw they were actually checking the standings in their fantasy football league or pricing AV equipment for their home. I assumed that those folks were taking a micro-break and besides, they were always my most productive people.”

Not every organisation takes this approach. Sometimes internet access is completely cut off; in other places its availability is restricted, so news and information sites are available but communications and networking sites, like Hotmail and Facebook, are not.

The question ultimately has as many answers as there are workplaces and as many opinions as there are managers, supervisors and hard-pressed desk-dwellers. If you type “Internet access at work” into a search engine you can even find some companies that have posted their staff web access policies online. That probably means they’re the ones who think it’s a good idea!

By Chris Townsend




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