Recreational Web surfing at work is on the rise

Not surprisingly, employees spend some part of their workday surfing the Web for information that doesn't pertain to work. More to the point for companies concerned about productivity, bandwidth and expenses, that recreational activity seems to have increased in the last three months. Almost 25% of employees' online time is given over to surfing the Internet for recreational purposes, according to research by SurfWatch Software.

Not surprisingly, employees spend some part of their workday surfing the Web for information that doesn't pertain to work. More to the point for companies concerned about productivity, bandwidth and expenses, that recreational activity seems to have increased in the last three months.

Almost 25% of employees' online time is given over to surfing the Internet for recreational purposes, according to research compiled by SurfWatch Software Inc., a maker of Internet content filtering software. The company tallied the information from Fortune 100 companies, small businesses, high-tech companies, manufacturers, and service businesses in the US, Brazil, Colombia and several European countries.

These organizations submitted log files to SurfWatch's CheckNet service, which looks at a company's Internet traffic in a number of categories, according to Theresa Marcroft, director of marketing at SurfWatch. When the company launched the service earlier this year, 18 percent of employees surfed the Web recreationally.

Companies are looking at Internet use to assess the extent of non-work visits to online sites, said Marcroft. "They want to know if it was for one day or if it's an ongoing trend. Are [employees] checking their portfolios or sports scores?"

The answers they come up with could have a noticeable impact on a company's bottom line, Marcroft said. By eliminating that recreational surfing, a company paying US$500,000 a year for T1 access could save $125,000, she said.

No one region or type of company witnessed a significantly greater number of recreational hits, she said. Rather, the findings applied across the board: Mostly, employees are checking general news sites (5 percent), followed by pornography (3 percent), investment (3 percent), entertainment (2 percent) and sports (1 percent), SurfWatch said.

General news and entertainment sites saw a significant increase in hits from April to July, while hits to job-search and sexually explicit sites dipped, the company said. Sports sites saw more activity during major events such as the World Cup, the Wimbledon tennis tournament, and the U.S. and British Open golf tournaments.

Popular sites for these employees, according to Marcroft, were The Wall Street Journal, CNN, The New York Times, Playboy, Penthouse, Charles Schwab, E*Trade, Quote.com, TV Guide, ESPN, Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News.

The jump over the past few months can be attributed somewhat to those lazy days of summer, when people have more time on their hands, their thoughts turn to vacations, and there are fewer urgent projects going on, she said.

Employees who surf the Web for their own amusement during work time are opening up a can of legal issues, according to SurfWatch. If an employee has an image from Playboy on a 36-inch monitor, it's like hanging that image in the lunchroom, Marcroft said. "It creates a hostile work environment, and [companies] are seen as condoning it."

Companies are also worried that employees who enter chat rooms may divulge privileged or insider information, she said.

Not all companies respond to employee Internet surfing in the same way. "Every company has different standards," Marcroft said. "Some are very conservative and want no personal use. Others say do whatever you want. There are those in the middle who say you work 8 to 5 and you can look [at the Web] during lunch or after work."

The number of U.S. companies with Internet use policies has increased from 30 percent in 1997 to 50 percent this year, she said. Companies are also implementing software that filters and monitors the Internet, with some getting started by blocking sexually explicit sites and monitoring the rest, she said.

A division of Spyglass Inc., SurfWatch Software can be reached in Los Altos, California, at +1-650-948-9500 or at http://www.surfwatch.com/.

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