As an employer, you pay your employees to work during office hours. But, gone are the times when people would only take emergency phone calls in the office. The advent of technology and novelties in communication have drastically changed the way people interact and with the passage of time, employees’ attitudes on what is acceptable and considered the norm have also transformed. Internet is now an integral part of workplaces and using the internet to get work done is a necessity. But, the conflict arises when we pose questions such as – even if surfing is tolerable, how much is acceptable? What is the reasonable time a person is allowed to check email or update their status on facebook or do online shopping during office hours?

With more and more youngsters entering the workforce and joining the call centre, BPO and IT company bandwagon, using social media, skype, chat, twitter etc. have changed the dynamics of office communication. To them, these methods of communication are routine and standard. And, in their eyes, curbing or controlling on ‘efficient and user-friendly’ ways of doing business is similar to depriving them of their right to breathe.

Another misuse of work hours occurs when employees spend time doing personal errands that run beyond a few minutes during their lunch or break time. Taking care of personal chores, reading newspapers and magazines, blogging, chatting with friends have all added on to the average employee’s day at work. Further, use of office resources- phone, stationery, office supplies, printer for personal purposes have also become an employee’s privilege to work in that office. The repercussions of employees using office equipment for personal purposes can lead to the loss of productivity and revenue for the company. The misuse of company vehicles, computers and printers leads to damage and wear and tear of equipment and poses privilege issues when only certain employees have the benefit of using such equipment.

While, some personal use of business resources cannot be completely stopped, several companies have their HR departments put out policies in their employee handbook that outline the misuse of office time, technology and resources. But, there are employees who continue to go about doing their personal business during work hours. The best way to handle this is to allow for some amount of slack, but to be watchful and fair when it comes to establishing rules and adhering to policies to ensure that personal use is restricted.

For instance, you as a manager have an accountant who during his break time and sometimes at lunch plays games on his computer. However, as his manager you haven’t seen him play games during work time and he seems to be getting his work done on time, what is the appropriate way to handle this situation?

The best approach will be to talk to the accountant in confidence. Asking him to stop playing games on the office computer right away will probably have a negative reaction and be less effective. Instead, gently let him know that while you are aware of his playing games during break, it is still breaking company policy as he is using the office computer to do so. And, keep in mind, that if you ask one employee to stop using the office computer for personal activities, then you must be consistent in ensuring that the same is applied to all other employees. And, it is a good idea to create a company policy that regulates the use of business equipment.

In earlier times, when internet was not a requirement and an employee’s physical presence for eight or more hours in the office was what mattered, performance was measured based on attendance. But, in today’s work culture, companies, especially large MNCs are also savvier about how they measure an employee’s performance on the job. Managers are discovering that if they do allow for some slack, several employees are putting in additional hours after office to get work done. But this varies from job to job and industry to industry. While working in hourly paid jobs and in retail, manufacturing and customer service positions, it is important to have a physical presence throughout the working day. But, in sectors like services, IT, BPO, it is reasonable to be clear about how much slack the management is willing to cut its employees so that they are able to deliver quality work within deadlines.

While, the topic of allowing personal work during office hours is still contingent upon several factors such as position, performance, company policy, etc; the best way to educate employees is to have appropriate policies and also talk to them about the existence of such policies. This type of ongoing interactive dialogues will fetch more employee involvement on what is reasonable and what is not acceptable along with the consequences for breaking company policy. But, all said and done, taking care of personal work doing office hours should be restricted and avoided, as much as possible.

Anusha Balasubramanian