Help, I'm Online And I Can't Get Off

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Many things affect productivity in the workplace, either for the better or for worse. As managers we are trained to pickup on clues and behaviors that can have adverse impacts on productivity, and we most often focus on tardiness, absenteeism, withdrawal from co-workers and other obvious signs.

But there is another, almost silent, problem lurking in the workplace, a problem that is growing and spreading and devouring employee productivity. The challenge with this problem is that it often masks itself as hard work and can be difficult to detect.

Internet, e-mail and Instant Messaging addictions, although not officially recognized as addictions, are real problems nonetheless, and they siphon off valuable productivity and time that should be spent serving our members.

Internet addiction, the almost uncontrollable need to be online surfing the Internet, is the most "mature" of the three issues being examined. It is important to note that this is a distinctly separate issue from Internet abuse in which staff visit prohibited websites.

With Internet addiction, the problem lies solely with the lost productivity of the staff person. Often the staff person will aimlessly travel from one site to another following random links to wherever they take them.

E-mail addiction occurs when a person feels they must continuously be checking for new messages and feels they are out of touch or isolated when they do not have access to a computer with e-mail.

Here again, the issue is lost productivity. Many of these people have multiple e-mail accounts and will often have multiple accounts with each provider. With websites such as Excite, Yahoo!, Iwon, Hotmail and Earthlink all providing free e-mail accounts for the asking it becomes easy understand how someone can have so many e-mail accounts.

Often people with an e-mail addiction will drop everything to check their e-mail when their audible notification announces a new message. "You've got mail" has become the irresistible Siren call to which they must respond.

The addicted e-mail user will immediately open their e-mail, read the new message and respond to it, and more often than not generate a few additional e-mails of their own, leaving their previous work ignored and likely forgotten.

An Instant Messaging addiction is really just an offshoot of an e-mail addiction. The lure to this technology is that it is mobile. No longer does the staff person's personal conversations have to be limited to just work hours; conversations can be continued during lunch, breaks, before and after work and most importantly, during meetings.

All humor aside, these are real problems for most employers. Without looking very closely it is difficult to see if someone is typing away on a work-related message or responding to a buddy about last weekend's game.

While there are a number of tools available to monitor and restrict Internet usage, the tools available to monitor e-mail usage are limited and the tools available for instant messaging are non-existent.

So what is an employer to do? To address the issue of Internet addiction, purchase tools that can monitor an employees Internet usage, review the reports and decide if the usage is appropriate. One nice feature of most of these tools is that they have the ability to block access to any site added to a restricted access list.

The problem of e-mail addiction is considerably more difficult and sensitive to address. Employers can monitor the quantity of e-mail an employee both sends and receives and if the amount seems excessive, a closer look into the content of the messages may be in order. An employer would not want to discipline someone for having too much inbound e-mail, only to later find out that the majority of the incoming e-mail is spam, which the employee cannot control.

If you do decide to explore your employee's e-mail, make sure you have clear policies in place that address your right to do so and under what circumstances you will exercise those rights.

An employer can also restrict access to the most popular of the free e-mail sites mentioned above and others as they are identified. This is also a good idea as these sites will often pass on content and attachments that may be restricted elsewhere on your network.

Instant messaging (IM) is a unique problem, as it is a mobile service. Some employers restrict cell phone use during working hours and block access to IM websites and prevent IM software from being installed on employee workstations.

Finally, as with all addictions, look for the signs. The Internet and its associated tools and services can provide benefit to a credit union, so long as we insure the tools are used as intended.

Among some of the signs of Internet, e-mail and instant Messaging addiction.

* Noticeable decline in work performance.

* An increased number of errors and mistakes.

* Sudden withdrawal from co-workers

* Preoccupation with the Internet

* Staying late at work to use the Internet

Lester Warby III is a Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Seattle Metropolitan Credit Union and a member of the CUNA Technology Council Executive Committee.

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