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Colborn’s Corner: Online distractions at work


Quentin Colborn

There has been much press comment over the past few weeks about employees’ online activities at work. Whether it be engaging in eBay trading or accessing Facebook during office hours, there have been plenty of opinions from both the specialist and mainstream press. Quentin Colborn addresses what online access means at work today.

Given the number of disciplinaries and dismissals that take place every day, it’s perhaps not surprising that some of them eventually make the popular press, even if they are not concerned with multi-million pound claims or tales of relationships within workplaces. But when the issue of the dismissal and discipline of employees of a local council for using eBay was in the press, it caught my eye.

From what I recall the employer’s concern was that the employees were spending an inordinate amount of time, allegedly up to two hours per day, conducting online trading when they should have been working. Not unfairly, in my opinion, the employer thought this was unreasonable.

The employees’ representatives took a different view, claiming the employer had put temptation in their way. So where does the balance lie? Surely there have always been distractions at work? Historically the tea trolley was the focus of discussion and time wasting; more recently smokers are felt by some to be slackers when taking smoking breaks.

What this says to me is that there has never been a time when all employees gave 100 per cent of their time to work; internet usage merely changes that to a different application. Where the issue arises is the degree to which ‘alternative activities’ become acceptable.

A little bit of common sense

As with all things, surely common sense should prevail. A few minutes spent online may be acceptable, but not hours, a few minutes smoking, a few minutes chatting… and so on. Equally there needs to be trust of employees – removing online access because it places temptation in people’s way is surely a step too far. We need people who can manage temptation – we deal with it in many other guises, employees handle cash, valuables and so on and while there may be cases of dishonesty, they are relatively few and far between.

There has also been coverage recently about the use of social networking sites such as facebook – should it be banned at work or not? The arguments range from the view that these are essential business tools to the view that they consume time with no real work-related purpose.

Of course both views may well be true, it all depends on context. Within some organisations the value of networking is a real business benefit and worth the time that employees put into it, but of course it can be solely a social activity, swapping stories and photos and so on.

As in online access generally, the use of social networking sites while at work needs careful management, but I suggest that hard and fast rules are not the answer. Surely what is needed is the nurturing of a responsible attitude to work. Does leadership and example not have a role here?

Let’s have your views. Is online trading an issue for you at work? Does your organisation gain or loose from the use of sites such as facebook?

Quentin Colborn is an independent HR consultant based in Essex who advises management teams on operational and strategic HR issues. Quentin can be contacted on 01376 571360 or via [email protected]. For further information, please visit:

One Response

  1. Time spent doing other stuff…
    ..if people have time to do this during their core hours then they are underutilised or poorly managed. That seems a no-brainer to me.

    If they want to surf during their lunch hour, and they have access, why not? Sometimes there are things that have to be done during the day, and if you pop out to the travel agency in your lunchtime or book your holiday online, what’s the diff?

    This is – as usual – a storm in a teacup, exacerbated by reactive and gung ho management and some unhelpful kneejerks by the unions – temptation in their way, for goodness sakes! Lock up the paper clips.

    Common sense, surely, people?

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