Should internet access be limited for employees?

Though I am in the process of building up my next company, this is not my first rodeo. From 1998 up until mid-2006 I—and later my partners—managed the growth of WebSurveyor up until its sale. One of the many challenges we had during that time was establishing not only a culture for our employees but also a clear set of rules governing among other things internet access.

The culture that I always wanted centered around personal responsibility. My view was to make sure people understood how important they were to the success of the business and to give them the freedom to use their computer as they saw fit to accomplish their goals. We made it pretty clear that objectionable material (a.k.a. porn) was completely forbidden and you would be fired if found accessing it from the office. 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. We were also struggling just to keep the business alive and everyone understood the gravity of the situation; those that didn’t we got rid of as quickly as possible. Our margin for error was incredibly small.

Over time the company grew, in some cases very rapidly, and we adjusted by moving into larger office space and hiring more and more people. Once we started reeling off a string of profitable quarters the pressure changed: we went from being in survival mode into a growth and expansion phase. In addition people had considerable privacy over our old environment, even if it was just the shallow barrier created by a couple of cube walls.

It was in this environment our verbal rules needed to change. The model we went with was to create a pretty comprehensive set of policies in our employee handbook and to continually reinforce our culture in meetings and personal interactions with the staff. We still did not limit access to the internet though, so 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.

My New Magic Trick
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. It was actually pretty comical and in some cases I would pull a "Columbo" and walk a few feet away, then turn back and say "Just one more thing…" to see them minimize the window again. Magic I tell you.

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. They managed to blend the ability to be productive with occasional travels into personal tasks and understood when to refocus on their primary responsibilities.

As a manager we had established a usage policy based on trust and I wanted to see that trust reciprocated. What really shocked me was that this talent (my magical window minimize skill) was not limited to entry level employees. I had senior and very experienced people that had enormous responsibilities do it, in some cases folks that were very recent hires. Needless to say those were not my finest moments as a champion for personal responsibility and usually resulted in a quick "Can I see you in my office for a minute?"

I bring this up because one of the folks that used to work for me, an early employee who I liked and trusted, told me about his new employer. They are a very large company and as a result have a very restrictive internet access policy. They do not allow access to social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter and have heavily throttled/limited access to things like Gmail and certain chat sites. I’m sure this kind of systemic approach not only makes it easier for management to ensure people are working and not goofing off during the day but also to protect themselves against liability issues such as an employee ogling porn in plain view of others.

Question of the day
My question for you dear reader is this: If you work in a company that limits your internet access does it limit your ability to be productive OR if you work for a company that does not, do you abuse it? Anonymous comments are on so use an alias if you like but I would love to hear some unfiltered feedback on this kind of issue. I also think it will help some of the managers and entrepreneurs that read this blog.

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