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TMCNet:  Cyber Monday shopping OK by most employers

[November 26, 2012]

Cyber Monday shopping OK by most employers

Nov 26, 2012 (The Virginian-Pilot - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Today's Cyber Monday, and odds are you won't have to sneak around to shop on the job.

Many employers have policies allowing workers personal use of computers during their work time or on breaks.

Norfolk Southern Corp., for instance, permits "incidental personal use ... so long as it is not excessive or offensive and does not significantly interfere with productivity," according to a policy emailed by spokesman Robin Chapman.

Like Norfolk Southern, the city of Virginia Beach doesn't have a policy specifically addressing online shopping or Cyber Monday, said Regina Hilliard, the human resources director. But its guidelines permit workers "limited personal use" of computers. The caveats include not reducing productivity, harming network security or creating "performance issues by or between workers." Hilliard said it's similar to the leeway given workers "to make a personal phone call from time to time." A recent national survey showed a significant shift toward online permissiveness in the workplace since last year: The percentage of employers polled by Robert Half Technology, a staffing company, that said they block computer access to online shopping sites plunged to 33 percent from 60 percent in 2011.

Most -- 55 percent -- said they allow access to retail sites but monitor use, up sharply from 23 percent last year. Robert Half surveyed more than 1,400 corporate technology directors.

The shift is driven by the same reason that employers provide gyms and cafeterias at their offices, said Chris McCrea, a regional vice president for Robert Half Technology based in Raleigh, N.C. "They want employees to stay close to work," he said. "You get more work and productivity out of them by being in the office." It also reflects the erosion of the boundary that used to separate work and home lives.

"Having the best technology available for our employees not only lends itself to provide great service to our clients but also lends itself to facilitate that work-life blend that we're all trying to achieve," said Heather Sunderlin, director of employee services at Wall, Einhorn & Chernitzer PC, a Norfolk accounting firm.

For example, an employee, while waiting for a phone call at work, can pay a personal bill online in less than a minute, without having to leave the office, she said.

William "Billy" Furr, chairman of the employment and labor law division of Willcox & Savage, a law firm in Norfolk, said he's seen an easing of restrictions, particularly for salaried employees. Few companies prohibit workers from using email for personal reasons, he said.

"If you have an employee whose child gets on the computer and emails his father that he's home from school that day and you tell the father he can't access email," Furr said, "you're going to have a morale issue on your hands." Plus, bans on online shopping at work can prove toothless. "With the advent of smartphones, even if you don't allow them to do it on their own computer, it's going to happen anyway," said Rozanne "Roze" Worrell, a Norfolk-based workplace and career consultant who writes a column for WVEC-TV's website.

The key, Worrell said, is "to maintain your workforce productivity, as well as your employee morale." She suggested that some employers consider scheduling staggered signup times when employees can shop throughout the day. That will avoid work slowdowns, Worrell said, "and your staff will appreciate your sensitivity to their needs." Cyber Monday last year was the biggest online shopping day ever, according to comScore, a research company based in Reston. Online spending topped $1.25 billion, comScore said, up 22 percent from $1.03 billion on Cyber Monday in 2010.

Of 5,000 consumers surveyed last month by PriceGrabber, an online shopping site, 41 percent said they planned to shop on Cyber Monday. Of that 41 percent, more than half -- 58 percent -- said they'd do more shopping Monday than on Black Friday.

Yet a huge majority of prospective Cyber Monday shoppers -- 83 percent -- said they'd do it from home. Only 11 percent acknowledged that they would shop on the job.

At city offices in Norfolk, which allows personal use of computers for "reasonably brief periods of time," Cyber Monday last year didn't trigger a "major spike" in Internet usage, said David Sullivan, the city's director of information technology. "I think most city employees are pretty good stewards of their time," he said.

Workers can get in trouble if they shop for too long Monday. Many employers monitor what sites they visit and how long they're on them. The city of Virginia Beach, for instance, performs a quarterly review of employees' Internet use, Hilliard said.

Some employers have more stringent policies. Sentara Healthcare and Clark Nexsen, an architectural firm in Norfolk, allow personal use of work computers only before or after work hours and during breaks. Even during those periods, Clark Nexsen will log them out after 15 minutes on a site, though they may return to sign in, said its president, Christopher Stone.

Geico, an insurance company with a large presence in Virginia Beach, is more restrictive. Workers may not use their computers at any time for personal purposes, said Joe Thomas, the regional vice president. The company, though, has an "Internet cafe," which employees can visit during breaks, he said.

"This has not been an issue for our associates," Thomas wrote in an email, "and they seem to enjoy our Internet cafe. This way, everybody is a winner." Cindy Stolebarger, who works at a business in downtown Norfolk, said she's not allowed to shop at all at work. She said she's OK with that. She'll just go online when she gets home Monday afternoon.

"My point of view is, I'm there to work, not to shop," Stolebarger said.

Pilot writer Carolyn Shapiro contributed to this report.

Philip Walzer, 757-222-3864, ___ (c)2012 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) Visit The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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