Acceptable use of computer facilities, email and the Internet at work - overview

Acceptable Use of IT Systems at WorkIn recent years, walking through the office environment has become less like a window into the working world of your business, and more like a view into the personal lives of your employees through the various social network pages plastered over their computer screens. Computers capable of accessing the Internet open the door for employees to work productively like never before, but can also enable them to access files and sites not pertaining to their work, and therefore enabling the Internet to suck productivity from your workforce. Many companies have chosen to implement an acceptable use of computer facilities policy to ensure that employees are not tempted to abuse the online freedom they have been given, but is it a good idea to implement a policy such as this? Do you really need to limit what your employees do online? The guide below will explain.

Why should businesses have an acceptable use of facilities policy?

The immediate cost of misuse of computer resources by your employees is obvious: wasted time. When your employees access a social network or read and pass on spam email, they are using time in which they should otherwise be working. In terms of lost working hours, this is a huge drain on your company. Although wasted time is the most obvious blight on your company resulting from computer misuse, there are far more contributing factors to lost revenue that just this. Social networking uses a surprising amount of bandwidth, since loading the large number of pictures and graphics commonly present on these sites is a very resource-intensive activity. The same is true for online games and image-rich spam email sent throughout your company network. Where there are bandwidth concerns, an employee who abuses your computer system is not just wasting their own time, but the time of other employees due to a reduction in available bandwidth slowing any connection actually being used for productive work. In addition to this, the unprofessional appearance of employees when social network and prohibited websites flash across their screens is sure to colour the opinion of potential customers and investors, thereby potentially losing your business both contacts and revenue.

Aside from the dangers of these online distractions, software and games installed by your employees can be a real danger to the integrity of your computer system. Not only do the frivolously installed games and software themselves take up space and use resources which would be better put to use in a productive way, many of the games and free utilities found online come bundled with unwanted software which can have a much more profound effect on your computer system. While care during installation can save the trouble of later removing these opt-out software add-ons and toolbars, careless employees may simply install this software without being fully aware of the risk, thereby compromising your sensitive computer network. In the very worst case scenario, a mistakenly installed software bundle may contain malware designed to systematically harvest information about your computer, or simply to allow unauthorised users access to your vulnerable network system. For these reasons, and many more, protecting your computer system against unacceptable use is a top priority. The paragraph below will explain the methods most commonly used to afford this protection.

What can be done to enforce the acceptable usage policy?

Many large companies employ a content filter system to enforce blocks on a list of banned web pages. These content filters not only prevent access to social networking sites, gaming sites, and any other sites deemed inappropriate by management, they can also be configured to provide a caution to employees that visiting such a site or attempting to bypass the block is a breach of the acceptable computer usage policy. Installing a spam email filter on your company's servers can make sure that internal emails are strictly business-related, thus allowing your staff to communicate much more effectively. Finally, establishing a set of user permissions on each account will prevent unauthorised users from installing unwanted software on their terminals, and in the strictest conditions, can even prevent users from modifying certain sensitive computer settings.

With all the checks, blocks, and filters described above, your employees are sure to work more productively than ever before, and your network is much more likely to remain secure against attack. Education is, however, often the most important tool in your arsenal when it comes to eliminating abuse of computer facilities, and making sure that employees are aware that your company has an effective computer usage policy and what this policy contains is key to achieving this goal. Including a link to the acceptable usage policy on each terminal is a wise idea, and letting staff know of your approach to computer use in the business environment can't help but inspire your workforce to be more focussed and committed to productivity when sitting at their computer terminal.