For those of us who didn't grow up with the Internet, the technology can be exasperating. Working on a PowerPoint is like trying to paint a masterpiece in a carnival setting where every keystroke is followed by a jack-in-the-box bursting out of its container, yelling ‘boo' and scattering confetti everywhere — someone is pinging you, someone else is sending you his tenth email for the day (marked urgent so you can't flag it for later) and older forms of communication (like the landline and cell phone) continue to buzz away like they always have. And then there are those life-changing features that we love. Online radio can stream 80s pop into your workstation while you wade through to-do lists and you can group chat with your boisterous college buddies while faking interest in a conference call. In short, it's complicated.

Ever since the Internet invaded office spaces, baffled bosses have wondered how to respond to the effect it has on their teams. Analysts estimate that the loss of productivity resulting from Internet access runs into billions of dollars' worth. Every modern-day manager has walked by to find their subordinates sheepishly minimising cricket score tickers or movie reviews. What follows is usually disciplinary action. The web is treated like the kid next door who's a distraction and a bad influence. Punishment could range from limited (and Websense-supervised) visits to a total ban. Predictably enough, regulations are followed by rebellion. There are countless sites with titles like “How to bypass Websense” and “Ten ways to access blocked sites from work”. It becomes the forbidden fruit that is suddenly even more appealing than legitimate web access. Also, thanks to the 24/7 culture that has developed in the workplace, it becomes harder for professionals to draw the line between work time and personal time. It's common to find people cramming chores into their workday, like wolfing down a sandwich while shopping online for gadgets or making a net banking transaction while they wait for an email.

When a restrictive Internet usage policy is announced abruptly in a mass mailer, there's often resentment among cubicle-dwellers who feel cut off from the outside world during those long hours spent at the office. Feeling like the lead character in “Castaway”, they often seek out secret passages to email accounts and end up compromising their own security, as well as the company's. Passwords and other sensitive information are entered into proxy sites that have no connection to the blocked websites. Some take the news badly when chat is banned and try to circumvent the rule using bizarre methods like opening GoogleDocs files and modifying the text line by line to simulate the act of chatting.

Scope for speculation

In workplaces where guidelines for Internet usage are not spelt out clearly, there is scope for much speculation and worry. Employees end up agonising over whether or not their casual banter over office email is being tracked by an eagle-eyed IT department that will later hold them accountable for what was said. Some take to using homophones in the place of ‘dangerous' words like résumé, to pre-empt a keyword search from throwing the spotlight on their conversation thread. Sample this: “I'm thinking of taking a Man Edge Meant course and improving my prospects”. “Ditto. I'm working on my Sea We tonight so I can get out of this hole”.

Companies are obsessed with quantifying the damage done by online loitering but a related question needs to be asked — how much is the corporate world losing in terms of employee attrition, preoccupation with web usage policies and serious security risks from proxy sites? The number is in all likelihood, frighteningly large. Also, the spirited tug-of-war between IT and employees may be redundant in the era of wi-fi and android phones, and when the difference between social and professional networking blurs or disappears altogether.

Perhaps it's impossible to keep out the viruses, the data thieves and casual chitchat. And those who dislike the forced multitasking that the Internet entails have to find ways to adapt since there's no keeping that grinning jack-in-the-box down.