02 Dec 2011

What are your staff doing online?

Do you know what your staff are up to online? Should you?

Many businesses struggle with these questions. They don’t want to play Big Brother but at the same time they need to make sure that staff internet use is appropriate.

For one thing, businesses are obliged to create safe and non-discriminatory work environments. Blocking access to dubious material plays an important role in that.

For another thing, we’re aware of the time-wasting temptation that the internet presents, so there’s also the question of productivity.

Of course, to those on the receiving end of the monitoring, it’s rarely a popular move. The public popularity of Senator Stephen Conroy’s filtering policy is proof of that.

But businesses aren’t society at large, and when it comes to monitoring online activity, they have legitimate and pressing reasons for doing so.

Wasting time on the business’s dime?

While the internet has become a vital tool, it can also be a distraction.

One way to keep an eye on internet use is a web content filter: technology which allows businesses to set boundaries for internet use by blocking particular kinds of sites (such as social networking portals) or by enabling them for only specific staff members or departments (for people in management roles, perhaps, or for members of the marketing team).

The same restrictions can be set for news, sports or entertainment sites. If you have bandwidth concerns, you can also limit access to media rich destinations such as YouTube.

Whether or not your business needs such controls probably depends on your assessment of your workplace culture. But where many find such controls to be most effective is not in their blocking of sites per se, but in the fact that the blocking serves as a reminder that in the workplace the internet is a business tool, and that its use should be appropriate.

Stopping dubious material

In addition to offering protection against phishing and malware infested sites (one of the most common ways that security threats enter business networks) a good web filter will also protect your business from inappropriate online content.

As well as creating a safer workplace, such controls can also prevent both human and public disasters.

Email too

Advice I’d offer to businesses considering web filtering is to ensure that any solution filters email too.

Not only is email a common vector for viruses and inappropriate content, it also carries productivity implications.

Indeed, by our ongoing measurements, 95% of email is either spam or virus carrying. If even a small percentage of that email is making it to the inboxes of your staff, you’re reducing their productivity. Then there’s the strain on your IT platform, which has to cope with the illegitimate load.

The best form of email filtering is that which operates at a carrier level: filtering that’s implemented by your internet provider. This stops unwanted mail from reaching your business in the first place.

Access in every pocket

Where once the internet connectivity on a business premises could be controlled by that business, smartphones and other 3G devices are now changing how the internet is accessed – essentially allowing every employee their own connection.

Making sure that these networks don’t inappropriately mix should be a concern.

Businesses don’t have the means (nor I would suggest, the will) to watch over these personal connections. Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to make clear to staff which of the policies governing online access through the business’s connection apply to access through personal connections when at the office as well.

Dave Stevens is MD, Brennan IT

(This blog post was first published on the SmartCompany website on December 1 2011).