Thoughts & Observations

Debating Computer Restrictions

Reprinted from my “Practical Business Radical” column in The Business Press

I was about to write this column focusing solely on how companies should stop babysitting employees’ use of computers – that they should stop blocking websites, stop blocking Facebook and MySpace, and stop restricting use of programs like Firefox. I recently read Farhad Manjoo’s great article – “Unchain the Office Computers!” – on Slate.com and I was all ready to unleash my battle cry of computer freedom, when a nagging memory of a recent news story stopped me from moving forward with my single-sided argument.

When the story first broke in October about the two Northwest Airlines pilots who overflew the Minneapolis – St. Paul International Airport by 150 miles, some of the blame was placed on them being distracted by using their laptops while piloting the aircraft. Although it now looks as if that might have been a more minor factor in the incident, it got me thinking about the other possible circumstances in which restrictions on the use of computers might help avert substantial disasters.

In his article on Slate.com, Majoo argues that doctors and nurses in hospitals, for instance, have received enough training and are skilled enough to juggle using an instant messenger program while they are completing their other work. What happens though, when those doctors and nurses get so engrossed in the messages they are sending back and forth that they don’t respond to a call quite as fast or they don’t get to a patient’s bedside as quickly as usual or they write the dosage of a medication down wrong?

There are other situations too, where distractions would be dangerous. We probably don’t want 911 operators watching videos on YouTube or bus drivers sending text messages while they drive bus full of passengers down the freeway. So where is the line? How do we decide what the right level of restriction is?

It has to do with analyzing the benefits of limitation-free computer use versus the potential negative consequences of allowing employees to operate with access to everything on the Web. Unless there are situations in which computer-based distractions risk the lives or the well-being of employees or the general public, there is not a very strong argument for restricting computer use. At my company a few months ago, we were hit by a virus that was traced back to an employee’s use of MySpace, and although it did take some IT staff time to fix the problem, the incident did not warrant banning employees from using MySpace or any other social networking platform. Why?  Because the cost to fix the problem was small compared to the potential negative implications on our trust-based culture if strict restrictions were put in place. It made a lot more sense for us to educate our employees on how to look out for potential virus and spyware traps (like not clicking on ads about filling out a survey to win $10,000), then it did to restrict the use of a program that we actually promote using as a marketing tool for the organization.

If you are worried about your employees slacking off and wasting company time checking their Facebook pages, restricting access to Facebook is not going to solve the problem. It is not going to make them more engaged, productive employees. You are actually missing the much bigger picture. The bigger picture is that employees should not be measured by how much time they spend physically at the workplace or even what they spend their time doing. They should be measured by what they actually produce. If employees are measured in that way, then the time they spend on Facebook or Twitter does not matter, as long as they are still getting their work done.

Restricting employee access to websites that might be seen as time-wasters does nothing but create an environment in which the company slowly becomes the enemy of the employee. Restrictions that have no reasonable basis give employees the strong message that they are not trusted. Restrictions also stifle innovation. Innovative companies like Google place no restrictions on their employees’ computers, and neither do most of the large technology companies.  They understand innovation does not thrive in environment littered with fences and barriers.

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