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Banning the Net or balancing work and online chit-chat

RECEPTIONIST Ni Jia was disappointed and angry when her company blocked access to, a very popular social networking Website where she could make friends, chat and weigh in on issues like pop stars, movies and weightier issues during work hours.

Her bosses - killjoys, she thought - wanted her and everyone else to focus on work, not play.

"Now my workdays are even more boring," says the 28-year-old Shanghainese who works in a local financial consulting company.

Surfing the Net and using social networking sites are enormously popular, but chatting takes company time. More and more employers are blocking access to sites like MSN, Facebook, Google talk and Chinese sites as well as video-sharing sites like YouTube and Toudou.

Many employers say staff are wasting company time, and sometimes there are virus and security issues. Young people who have grown up with the Internet say it's part of life, however, and call for more flexibility.

Beyond the Internet, there's cell phone use, 3G technology and wireless access. It can be a game of cat and mouse as employees circumvent their employers' efforts to limit their recreation. Killjoys vs Net addicts.

Finding a balance can be tricky.

"Those young employees spend too many working hours and too much energy chatting with their friends or sharing videos online," says Chen Yinfei, the information technology officer at Ni's company.

He blocked when he received complaints from managers that staff were frittering away their time online.

Sites are more likely to be blocked in big international companies with sophisticated IT departments.

Zhang Ruijie, a product salesperson, has been working for a Canadian industrial supplies manufacturer in Shanghai for four years. The company has never allowed access to any networking site.

"I thought I had entered the Dark Ages when I graduated from college and arrived in the working world," says 26-year-old Zhang who now can't enjoy Kaixin, Facebook, Hotmail (both e-mail and MSN chat), among other sites. Worse, she has no wireless access for her laptop so she can't circumvent the boss.

"The barriers definitely did what the boss intended - they stopped me and my colleagues from using work time to goof around online," says Zhang. But, she says, she needs to get online to search for information for work, not just play.

This is a common complaint from young people who join the workforce with the expectation that their bosses will embrace technology as much as they do.

Then some discover that the sites they're supposed to be researching for work are blocked, such as Facebook and MSN. Or they can't take a little down time to read a news story online or check their personal e-mail or social networking accounts.

"These two worlds will continue to collide until there's a mutual understanding that performance, not Internet usage, is what really matters," says sociology professor Gu Xiaoming from Fudan University.

Young university graduates these days are less likely to fit the traditional 9-to-5 work mode and are willing to put in time after hours in exchange for flexibility, including online time.

Some employers and employees wonder whether companies can take a different approach, without compromising security or workplace efficiency, allowing some online access that young employees crave.

Myshare Co, a media advertising agency, allows access depending on employees' job requirements and Internet security.

Pang Ruoshi, 25, joined the company two years ago and does media research, so his access hasn't been restricted.

"As I am working on Website media research as an associate technical planner, it's unreasonable to block access in our department," says Pang.

Other employees are not so fortunate.

"We couldn't open videos online, because the company thought there might be a virus on some video-sharing sites," says Zou Minyan, an accountant and former employee. She worked there for three years after graduation and quit a few months ago.

In the accounting department, access to Hotmail and MSN chatting was permanently blocked.

Employees didn't get a warning or slap on the wrist for chit-chatting and sharing videos on YouTube and Tudou, says Zou.

"They just told the IT department to block access without any notice that we were spending too much time doing personal stuff during work hours," Zou says.

Some employers want to attract talented young staff, however, and know they are keen on the Internet, so they don't restrict the access unless security is concerned.

Online recreation and social networking time are the price they pay.

That's what Jiang Qi decided to do - let employees play online - when he started a pet's products company.

"While they might spend time chatting with their friends, sometimes they're asking the same friends to buy our products," says Jiang.

"Banning the Internet during work hours would be myopic on our part. The necessary social communication helps with their jobs," Jiang says.

Many companies are still trying to figure out online policies and how to deal with the blurring lines between work and personal time.

"Wide-open Internet access is a risky approach, but fully closing it is increasingly untenable for cultural and business reasons. It seems an endless game between cat and mouse," says Professor Gu.

With the increasing popularity of 3G phones and other technologies, it will be endless work for employers to block more access besides the Internet.

It's important for enterprises to establish a good company culture and mutual understanding with employees, says Gu.

"If the company has a humane culture and mature management, employees will work efficiently," says Gu, "and the company might not need to restrict access."

Tips on staying out of trouble

Remember that anything you do on a company-issued computer or cell phone - in or out of the office - can be tracked by a boss, the courts or a regulator. Many employers monitor Website use, keystrokes, instant messages and e-mail. Some even archive text messages on work cell phones.

Avoid mentioning your company, boss or co-workers in online postings unless you have permission to do so.

Avoid using any device to take or transmit any company-related photos, videos or other recordings without permission from management. This includes any images of company buildings or logos and embarrassing or unprofessional photos of co-workers or clients.

Know your company's policy on social networking, video Websites, e-mail and other tech-related activities.

Regularly delete personal e-mail from your work account.

Remember when searching for a job that many employers check social networking sites, blogs and other online activity.

(Source: The e-Policy Handbook, 2nd Edition)


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