Lentis/Playing Games at Work: Employees versus Employers, Surveillance and Stealth
Cyberslacking is a term which has widely been defined as employees using IT equipment and systems for non-work related purposes. While cyberslacking, employees will visit news, social media, and gaming sites on company time sapping employee productivity and costing employers billions. A 2006 survey conducted by Websense, Inc. on 351 IT decision-makers in the U.S. estimated that employees spend 5.7 hours per week on personal surfing at work. Employers have found ways to limit web surfing during work hours with the intention of increasing productivity through means such as blocking websites and using key logging software. In a report conducted in 2010 by OpenDNS, companies most often blocked Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Twitter from their employees.
Technology is booming rapidly in all sectors of the business world. As a result, cyberslacking is not a phenomenon that exists only in the United States. In a recent survey, the British employment website MyJobGroup.co.uk reported that over 2 million UK-based workers (6% of the workforce) were spending over an hour on social networking sites. Additionally, the International Data Corp states in an article from the Better Business Bureau that 60 percent of all online purchases are completed during work hours.
Although cyberslacking has just emerged in the past decade, slacking has existed long before the internet and recent technological breakthroughs were introduced into the workplace. Breaks have always been a staple in modern office culture in the United States. Before the personal computer was introduced, slacking meant frequent visits to the water cooler for idle chatter and gossip, taking extended lunches, or having long, personal non-work related telephone conversations.
On January 4th, 2006, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg fired Edward Greenwood IX, an assistant working in a Legislative Affairs Office in Albany, for leaving up a game of Solitaire on his computer screen at work. Greenwood, who held his salaried job for 6 years, was dismissed with no severance pay and no other job offers. Mayor Bloomberg stated, "There's nothing wrong with taking a break but during the business day at your desk, that's not appropriate behavior." Greenwood told reporters that he had always finished his work in a timely fashion and he played solitaire only when there was no work left to do. He usually played the virtual card game a few times a week or during lunch breaks.
A similar case in New York occurred in March 2006, only a few months after the Bloomberg-Greenwood incident. Toquir Choudhri, a city employee of the New York's Department of Education, was fired for browsing sites like Google and lonelyplanet.com. A lawsuit filed on behalf of Choudhri concluded with Administrative Law Judge John Spooner ruling in favor of Choudhri and recommending that Choudhri should keep his job. Choudhri's defense attorney argued that there was never undone work or people waiting as a result of his client's web surfing, he was an upstanding employee, and he finished all of his assignments on time. However, the ruling was just a recommendation and whether Choudhri got his job back was up to his employer.
Economic Impact of Cyberslacking
The economic impact of cyberslacking at work can severely impact the profitability of companies. While slacking has always been a part of office settings, the advent of the internet and personal computers has increased the accessibility and impact of slacking off at work. Salary.com recently concluded a 2008 study which found that 73% of employees spent part of their day on activities that were non-work related with 22% of employees responding that they waste up to two hours a day at work . With thousands of distractions just one click away and the ability to easily hide what someone is doing on a computer, it’s not hard to see how cyberslacking is growing into a productivity epidemic. Malachowski and Simonini of Salary.com report that in 2006 wasted time cost employers $544 billion . With personal internet use representing 52% of this wasted time, the cost of cyberslacking can be estimated to be around $275 billion . However, lost employee productivity from cyberslacking isn’t the only financial cost associated with employees browsing the web. Cyberslacking employees take up disk space with non work related files and sometimes even create security breaches through their internet misuse. Computer viruses and other malicious programs can enter company servers because of employees accessing or downloading materials unrelated to their work. These programs can be extremely damaging, having the ability to delete information and crash computer systems. A 2006 study by Websense reported that around 7.5% of organizations’ disk space is used to store non-work related files and that security breaches cost companies an average of $127,400 a year . In fact, according to Todd Weiss of Computerworld, a recent Challenger Study estimates workplace productivity losses associated with fantasy football to range between $275-435 million per week in the NFL regular season . The billion dollar problem of lost productivity from cyberslacking in the modern workplace needs to be addressed quickly as technology continues to accelerate towards continuous connectivity to the internet through devices such as cell phones, tablets, and computers.
Like a coffee or water break in the past, taking a break can be beneficial and actually improve employee production. Playing games in moderation can be a good way for employees to "recharge their batteries" and relieve stress . It is important, however, that these breaks are viewed as privileges and treated as such. Despite that employers often fear that employees will abuse their breaks, Brent Coker of the University of Melbourne conducted a study where he found that "people who surf the Internet for fun at work--within a reasonable limit of less than 20 percent of their total time in the office--are more productive by about 9 percent."
Employees often treat these breaks as a reward for doing a good job. Some companies have even started to reward employees with virtual tokens for completing a task. These tokens can then be used by employees in simple games of chance to win prizes. This acts as an incentive for employees to do work and attempt tasks they otherwise might not.
In companies that employ results based management, playing games is acceptable as employers are only concerned about the results in this managerial structure. Therefore, as long as employees are able to complete their work satisfactorily and on time, they can engage in other activities including gaming. Although taking breaks and playing games in some systems is acceptable, it is important that the employees do not abuse the system and slack off on their work.
Gaming can also be as an educational tool for employees. Dave Gray believes that in a controlled environment they can be beneficial for the workplace. Author of Gamestorming, Mr. Gray feels that games can be used to simply complex problems and promote creative thinking in a safe environment. He believes "games are simply a way to put structure around the chaos of creative work." This idea does not endorse the traditional sense of gaming where workers engage in the well-known games such as minesweeper, but rather a collective game that can be used to simulate real life work problems that employees may encounter. This gaming instead can be used as a learning tool and a way to explore and try new ideas.
Gaming at the workplace has now become a major factor in recruiting new employees. Prospective workers are now very concerned with the culture of the company and seek out jobs that have a fun and enjoyable work environment. In order to attract these people, companies are incorporating things like a gaming room into their offices. At such places, the employees can play pool or video games and are able to relax and relieve their stress. These companies want their employees to enjoy coming to work because they feel that happier employees work harder and are more productive. By sacrificing a little bit of work time, companies get overall better employee payoff. These companies have higher retention rates with gaming than before while their productivity has not suffered and instead improved .
Cyberslacking can lead to legal issues for employers. Many cases have emerged where employees have sued their employers over alleged harassment that was sent electronically at work. In 1995, Chevron was sued for $2.2 million dollars by a woman over lewd remarks sent through company email. Microsoft was also sued for a similar amount over an online sexual harassment case. In a final example, Morgan Stanley was sued by a group of black employees over racist jokes that were being electronically distributed at the company. A New York district court ruled that employees had the right to sue employers over these matters, despite the fact that it was other employees who made the derogatory comments. The Supreme Court upheld this decision, asserting that companies must take precautions to create a discrimination free environment, even on the internet. The material that is sent does not have to be directed towards a particular individual in order for a lawsuit to develop. For example, the presence of online pornography can be grounds enough for a sexual harassment case.
In addition to concerns about harassment lawsuits, there is the risk of intellectual property being lost on company computers. In 2006, three employees of Coca-Cola were arrested for unlawfully stealing trade secrets and wire fraud. The employees went through Coca-Cola files while at work and attempted to send the secret formula of Coke to PepsiCo. A similar case occurred when a Lockheed Martin analyst was emailed confidential information from the disgruntled employee of a competitor. However, the information was returned to the competitor and removed from Lockheed Martin’s computers. Cases such as these have given employers reason to be concerned about the safety of classified information. Many anti-cyberslacking systems use these arguments to advertise their product, arguing that it will reduce the risk of intellectual property being taken.
Surveillance and Attempts to Fight Cyberslacking
Computers are critical tools of productivity in 21st century offices, so employers are forced to regulate and monitor computer usage rather than restricting it. Most methods of computer surveillance focus on an employee's internet usage and attempt to either actively deny access to certain content or passively catch employees who violate computer policies. However, more pervasive methods of surveillance can read an employee's operating system signals and remotely replicate their desktop, allowing all aspects of an employee's computer use to be covertly observed. Often, employers collect more data then they can reasonably comprehend, so network administrators will either rely on automated filters to read data for them or wait until they find a problem employee and then search their stored data. Even deleting compromising files is not enough to assure privacy, as specialized hardware can allow an employer to read hard disk surfaces for data that has been deleted in a disks file system but not overwritten.
The Orwellian powers of network administrators stem from the multimillion dollar industry of Workplace Surveillance where systems can range in price from tens to thousands of dollars. Studies have shown that 78% of employers monitor their employees in some way, and that within this percentage most employers choose to monitor internet use or store employee emails. Programs such as Shadow, SpyAgent, Web Sleuth, and Silent Watch have convenient interfaces and allow for a manager to decide whether or not employees should be notified that they are being monitored. The company names evoke imagery of covert operations and all seeing security, giving employers a feeling of power and providing a first line of deterrence against cyber slackers. An employer can either choose to immediately punish employees who violate their computing policies or hold on to a paper trail of violations to use at their discretion. Firing an employee can be much easier for an employer on any grounds if they have a transcript of cyber mischief to use against them whether or not the employer even cares about cyberslacking. In addition, corporations can are more powerful than law enforcement in their ability to collect data because they do not need a warrant to monitor anything considered "company property". Employers can even go as far as monitoring employee locations on modern smart phones using integrated GPS sensors to enforce work schedules and prevent slacking outside of the office. Devices can also be set up to delete data remotely or become inoperable at the will of an administrator. Laws rarely regulate an employer's power to monitor company property. Only in Connecticut and Delaware are employees required to be notified if a device is being used to track their movements.
Getting Around Surveillance and Blocking Software
Have you ever found yourself trying to hide your screen from a person sitting next to you? This scenario is so common that devices such as privacy screens for personal computers have been made to fulfill this need. Companies such as 3M sell privacy screens for computers and cell phones. 3M states, "Privacy is central to everything you do ," on their website advertising privacy screens for personal devices. 3M markets a screen for a desktop computer as "great for open wall cubicles and those located in high traffic areas ."
During the early 2011 uprisings across the Middle East, or what is commonly referred to as the Arab Spring, many social networking sites were blocked by the governments of many of the countries affected by the popular uprisings. In Iran, people were still accessing websites such as Facebook and Youtube which were reportedly blocked by the Iranian government. One way that people within Iran were accessing the blocked sites was by utilizing proxy servers . A proxy server allows a user to access websites that would otherwise be blocked. For example, people in Iran can connect to a machine, or a server, that is outside of the country. A machine outside of the country would not be subject to the same blocking of websites as a computer within the country. The user would be able to visit blocked websites. To better understand proxy servers, consider the following situation.Dan and Bill are at a party. Dan sees a girl that he thinks is extremely attractive, but is too shy to approach her. Bill knows the girl. Dan asks Bill to talk to her for him. Bill talks to the girl and introduces her to Dan. In this example, Dan, the user, makes a request to Bill, the proxy server, and is connected to the attractive girl, the blocked website.
As with the website blocking in Iran, the blocking software utilized by employers can be circumvented by use of proxy servers. Finding a proxy server, a seemingly daunting task, is very easy. A quick Google search for proxy servers yields dozens of websites allowing access to proxy servers. As well as circumventing blocking software, using a proxy server can shield a user from some surveillance software. It is important to note that companies will still be able to see that an employee visited a proxy server.
Smartphones are becoming a necessity to typical office workers . Many employees already have smartphones with access to any website regardless of the blocking or surveillance software on their work computers. Smartphones and other devices allow access to sites that are blocked by employers. Employees are able to use their smartphones while sitting at their desk, eating lunch, or taking a break without suspicion.
Cyberslacking is a notable example of a fight over the balance of power between employers and employees. While employees exist who will abuse their computer access by slacking off at work for a significant amount of time, many workers will act responsibly and only take breaks after they have done their work and need to recuperate. Monitors and filters that companies set up show a complete lack of trust in employees while shifting the balance of power towards them and away from the workers who cyberslack. On the other side, using privacy screens, smartphones, and proxy servers to bypass employers' restrictions allow the balance of power to shift back towards employees. As restrictions are raised by employers, employees come up with new and creative ways to bypass them playing a continuous game of cat and mouse.
As companies increase the rate at which they monitor their employees, a "culture of distrust" will being to rise. Employees will feel that they are not trusted to surf the web reasonably and responsibly, causing resentment and undermining morale in the workplace. Employers will feel that their employees will abuse their computer access if there are no restrictions. This distrust employees feel gives rise to groups like Stop Blocking and decreases productivity in the workplace through angering employees.
Even websites such as LinkedIn and Communicator can be distractions. Communicator is used for business functions, but can also be a great way to slack off. Although these are both work friendly social networking sites, spending too much time on them can abuse the privilege of using them. A compromise must be made between companies and employees and a level of trust must be established for these programs to be used in a responsible manner.
Cyberslacking is healthy to employee productivity and moral if done in moderation. Employees should be respectful of the fact that they are getting paid to work and should only take breaks in moderation to prevent abusing the system. Employers should be respectful to their employees and understand that it is unfair to expect employees to work long shifts without breaks. The whole cat and mouse game of workplace surveillance can be broken down into an issue of respect. By respecting each other with regards to cyberslacking, employees and employers can be more productive and create a more positive workplace environment.
- Odell, Carol (2011). Controlling Cyberslacking says Carol. http://www.bbb.org/blog/2011/07/controlling-cyberslacking/