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Employers pulling the plug on Facebook

All that superpoking wastes a lot of time at the office — and could be costing companies billions in lost productivity. Why a growing number of employers are banning Facebook.
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As the co-founder of Ascentive, a Philadelphia-based software firm that solves workplace Internet problems, Adam Schran figured managing his own staff's Web use was pretty well covered.

That was before Facebook came along. Like countless other small-business owners, Schran suddenly found himself worrying about lost productivity as more and more of his 30 employees began logging on to the popular social networking site — friending, poking and superpoking on company time.

"For the last couple of years, time wasting has become an increasingly huge issue," Schran says, citing Facebook among today's worst workplace distractions. "As an employer, you want to help your employees do their jobs, rather than be a traffic cop all the time."

Facebook, which was developed four years ago in a Harvard University dorm room by its 20-something CEO Mark Zuckerberg, was initially restricted to high school and college students, allowing them to chat, swap photos and generally hang out online without grown-ups around. That all changed in September 2006, when registration was opened to the general public. Within months, the site's traffic surged by more than 80 percent, with 18- to 24-year-olds accounting for less than a third of that growth.

These days, Facebook attracts upwards of 30 million unique visitors every month for up to an hour at a time, second only to MySpace as the world's top social networking site. And office workers represent the fastest-growing demographic.

That kind of success is putting business owners in a tight spot. Facebook can hit employers in several ways, HR and business management consultants say. On top of distracting workers from doing their jobs, excessive online social networking in a smaller office can boost demand on bandwidth and cut into IT costs. Even a minute here and there can add up. Robert Half International, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based staffing firm, estimates that U.S. employees spend nearly an hour a day on personal Internet use, including everything from checking e-mail to watching YouTube.

For some, Facebook is gobbling up more of that time. A recent survey of more than 700 office workers in the United Kingdom found that employees spent at least 30 minutes on either Facebook or MySpace on a typical work day — with two respondents saying they spent as much as three hours a day on the sites. Global Secure Systems, a U.K.-based IT security firm that conducted the survey, estimates these daily visits are costing employers several billion dollars a year in lost productivity.

How widespread has the problem become? About half of the nation's employers now block or restrict workplace access to Facebook, fearing both lost productivity and security risks, according to Sophos, a global IT security firm. In a survey of 600 employees last year, 43 percent said they were barred from using Facebook outright, while 7 percent said access was restricted to work-related use. In a nod to the site's growing popularity, 8 percent of employers who allowed access to the site during office hours said they did so to avoid an employee backlash.

"Companies are split on the question of Facebook," says Graham Cluley, the firm's senior technology consultant. While some employers consider the site a procrastinator's paradise, he says, others see it as a valuable networking tool that connects sales reps, marketers, and other employees.

For his part, Schran clearly falls in the second camp. He believes it's a mistake for employers to become too heavy handed about personal Internet use.

"A lot of the filtering software out there tends to block stuff employees need to do their jobs," Schran says. Beyond that, he adds, too much oversight can leave employees "feeling like children."

Instead, Schran's solution, which was developed in house, seeks to strike a balance. Last year, Ascentive unveiled a line of software that tracks employee Web use based on alert terms, specific sites, and applications, but also includes an unmonitored, personal-time feature for lunchtime and other approved breaks during day. Pop-up windows tell workers when the feature is activated and how much private time they have left.

"It's about finding a compromise," Schran says.