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 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, 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.

Policy & Practice

Policy Overkill

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

When new technology or use of technology is discovered, two things inevitably happen: first, people immediately find negative uses for it. Then second because of these people, companies around the world decide that this new discovery requires a policy. The policy starts simple, outlining the parameters for use of whatever this new discovery is – a computer, the Internet, e-mail. It protects the company. It protects the employees. It might even be effective until the pages of the policy begin multiplying like rabbits – 20 pages turn into 40 pages, which turn into 100 pages.   All of sudden the policy is so long that no employee actually reads it.

With social media quickly becoming the new national pastime, companies are rushing to put social media policies in place, some heading straight for policy overkill. Policies in general are often viewed as a way to control employee behavior – put a dress code policy in place, and employees are required  to dress a certain way. Companies who approach the development of a social media policy with the same end result in mind are misguided. Companies who believe that putting a 40-page social media policy in place is going to allow them to control what their employees say and do online are missing the point and losing out on the possibilities of social media. Social media is not about controlling the conversation, it is about being a part of the conversation and the conversation could benefit your company.

When I was crafting the social media policy for our company, I knew I didn’t want a 40-page document that would kill the spirit of social media participation. I found inspiration through IBM’s policy, which they openly publish on their website, and through a great post by Sharlyn Lauby on entitled “10 Must Haves for Your Social Media Policy.” I boiled the core ideas down to ten simple guidelines.

Here’s our policy (yes, this is the exact wording): First, tell the truth. Second, have a purpose. Like everything else in life, reaching your goals is a lot easier when you have some clue what you’re trying to accomplish. Then, add value. Bottom line: say something helpful, or witty, or informative. The world doesn’t need to know what you ate for breakfast this morning. Fourth, be authentic. This is not the place to develop an alter-ego. Let people know who you really are and what you do. Fifth, speak for yourself. Your opinions may not always be the same as the organization’s. And that’s cool. Just make sure that your presence in the social media world is in the first person – lots of “I” and not so much “we”. Sixth, play nice. Respect people. Don’t be mean. Don’t call people names. Don’t use racial slurs. Don’t use foul language. Don’t be a jerk.

Seventh, respect copyright and fair use. Don’t use people’s stuff without giving them credit (and don’t use stuff you’re not allowed to use). That’s just tacky. And in some cases, it also happens to be illegal. Eighth, if it’s confidential, keep it that way.
You don’t like people sharing your personal business without your permission. So if somebody has told you that information is confidential, keep it that way. Ninth, be social. Don’t be in a one-way social media relationship. If people comment on your blog, respond nicely to their comments. It’s called “social” media for a reason.

And finally, use common sense. We try to hire employees who have common sense and we trust them to use it. Think of social media as a giant world-wide billboard. What you post can be seen by anyone – your boss, your co-workers, your mom. You don’t need a poorly chosen Tweet to wreck havoc on the organization or your life.

That is it, our policy – simple, to the point, and actually encouraging employees to participate in social media. If you find that a significant number of employees are saying awful things about your company online, it is highly likely that there is something wrong with your company, not something wrong with your employees. Trying to stifle your employees (or your customers) will only make them speak up more loudly and more frequently. Your employees and your customers are the best tools you have for understanding how your business needs to improve. They are talking about you online whether you are listening or not. Don’t kill the conversation with a policy. Take a step back and listen instead.