Wednesday, June 13, 2012

On the Theory Behind Workplace Web Filtering

Many modernly equipped firms in today's world, especially large and old-fashioned ones, follow a policy of website filtering, by which the employee is restricted from browsing to websites deemed to be either unsafe or not conducive to a productive work environment. Thus, popular social media and entertainment websites such as YouTube and Facebook are blocked, as well as more standard email websites, such as Gmail and Yahoo Mail.

The logic behind the policy is simple enough to speculate about. A firm believes that by limiting the access to these websites, an employee will begin to consider that, since he can't procrastinate in an enjoyable matter, he may as well perform his work duties. In essence, the idea is to make the work duty the most entertaining thing the employee could do on the job.

However, the logic against such a policy is just as simple, and perhaps even more convincing. Who is to say that, if an employee can't procrastinate a certain way, he won't simply substitute it with another? Also, the reasoning that work will automatically become the most fun thing to do at work after such a policy becomes a bit more suspect when we examine it closely. An employee still has the options of communicating with other employees, taking a walk, getting a coffee, etc., once his favorite websites are taken away. In my opinion, there is no shortage of the number of things that an employee would be able to come up with in order to avoid his duties, if he was really so inclined.

Another factor that I believe deserves consideration is the mental fatigue aspect of being expected to work continuously for many hours a day. It is possible that, at least for some people, the break associated with browsing to certain sites for small periods of time is not only a desired, but a necessary break. Here is an example of such a situation: Suppose an employee's job is to type as many pages as possible per day. An employee taking no breaks may waste no time doing other things, but his average number of pages per hour may begin to decline as a function of time because of mental fatigue. Suppose there is another employee that takes periodic breaks on entertainment websites. While this employee does lose all the time that he spends on those websites, it is feasible that, following one of these breaks, the worker's mind is refreshed and his average number of pages per hour increases substantially (if temporarily). This example could also be easily adapted to include quality of work, for which one may see similar results as with quantity. Thus, it is also conceivable that, at the end of the day, the total number of pages completed by the procrastinating worker could be greater than that by the diligent worker.

Another interpretation of the mental refreshment aspect is to think of it also as a possible relaxant. An individual may be worried about a certain email he is expected to receive or send out, or some other quick business he must attend to on a restricted website. The stress that comes from this anxiety will obviously be a hindrance to one's productivity. By simply allowing this individual to quickly take care of this business, he will be able to stop thinking about it and get back to work with a renewed sense of vigor.

One more point I'd like to consider is the force of habit. Before finding employment, most people have spent countless years developing the habits that allow them to be the most comfortable and to work the most efficiently that they can. Some people listen to music, some people keep a chat window open, some people check the news. From the very fact that these habits have remained with this person to this day, and from the fact that this person was able to secure the job in the first place, there is the direct implication that the person's working habits are of sufficient quality for him to be employed at that particular workplace. Why then, would it make sense to throw off a worker's habits by restricting certain websites? Even if it is assumed that the employee can quickly adapt to new work habits, there will be a learning curve of variable length during which productivity will naturally be stunted.

I’d like to make it amply clear that I am not advocating procrastination in the workplace. In fact, I am advocating quite the opposite, as I hypothesize that disabling workplace web filtering will ultimately improve employee performance.

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