business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

Fact: Employees are online shopping on the job, more than ever before.

Fiction: The only way to stem the tide is to ban social networking in the workplace altogether.

Bottom line: Rapid changes in modern technology require employers to utilize an old-fashioned tool – common sense.

That’s the takeaway from the surveys, articles and internet exchanges about this hotly-debated topic, which could reach a boiling point this week.

All of the numbers point to an increase in online shopping this holiday season – some 57.1 million Americans are expected to hit click and ship for their family and friends and Cyber Monday sales were up 5% to $887 million.

And since the all-important deadline for free shipping ends tomorrow at and other big hitters, shoppers across America are going to be racing the clock to wrap up their internet shopping in the next 36 hours. And many will be at work.

Just how many? A recent survey for ISACA, a trade group for information tech professionals, showed that employees on average plan to spend almost two working days – 14.4 hours – shopping online in November and December. That is almost triple the five hour average cited in a similar 2008 survey.

In a separate survey of 1,500 ISACA members, 25% estimate the productivity loss from online holiday shopping at work at $15,000 or more per employee.

The alarming numbers from the first survey fuel the fears of companies that are skittish about social networking in the workplace. A recent study found that some 40% of the executives whose firms did not utilize social media were concerned about confidentiality, security and employee productivity.

Take it from the experts, as in the tech gurus at ISACA: social networking is here to stay, and it is “unrealistic” that firms can completely stop on-line shopping. What employers can and absolutely should do is educate their staff about their internet policy and potential security issues of online shopping, including viruses, spam and phishing attacks. Start a dialogue, articulate well-defined parameters (such as e-commerce access during lunch hour), and keep the lines of communication open. Allowing a hard-working employee to place an online order rather than rushing to the mall before picking up the kids has very little downside.

Forward-thinking companies have already embraced social networking, knowing that it is a key component in engaging consumers and developing a two-way relationship with them. To not engage because of “productivity” or shopping concerns is short-sighted, particularly in today’s competitive and quickly evolving marketplace. As the CEO of a public relations firm wrote on a blog: “Those who learn to appropriately use new tools will soon be well ahead of the game than other organizations that fear and don't understand them.”

And while shopping is top of mind today, the issue is more far-reaching. I’ve read many posts on this topic this week, and not surprisingly some of most insightful comments came from MNB readers.

Wrote one: “Everything in moderation. When it comes to rules, zero-tolerance is not the answer, especially when dealing with adults. Everyone bends the rules occasionally, but abuse of any company resource shouldn’t be tolerated.  Shopping on your lunch break, as long as your employer doesn’t have internet bandwidth issues, should be tolerated.  Surfing all day long should not.

“Employers need to put trust in their employees that they will do the right thing.  If something is being abused, then someone will say something to someone who will do something about it.  But forbidding a relatively harmless activity is never the answer if that activity improves morale and increases loyalty to the employer.”

Common sense and sound business sense.

Kate McMahon can be reached via email at .
KC's View:
An interesting postscript here. According to an anonymous survey of 22 CPG companies conducted by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and released at GMA’s Social Media Forum last week, while only 47.4 percent of CPG companies have more than a cursory social media presence, 63.6 percent of respondents are shifting resources from traditional to social media.

Now, this survey focuses on how companies are using social media to engage with shoppers. What all of these companies need to do is also pay attention to how social media allows their people to engage with each other. It allows them to talk about their jobs, their companies, their products, and how their hopes and dreams dovetail with reality ... all things that employers have to think about, because it gives so much transparency to their inner workings.