A Look in the Mirror

It is the fall of 2008. The recent fiery meltdown of financial markets has ironically left many feeling a bit icy. Although the frosty forecast is shadowed with caution and concern, I recently found inspiration in my own backyard.

At first, when I looked out my window, I could see only the bony fingers of tree limbs scratching senselessly at a grim gray sky and a cadre of leaves helplessly animated by the whimsical play of wind. But at second glance I became fixed upon an optimistic site. There amongst the dying bones of branches and the dancing dead foliage, a troop of squirrels toiled tirelessly. Their work was patient and methodical, but it was unmistakable to me that their outlook was anything but gloomy. Why? Because they know the perennial plight of winter has come again and they are innately prepared for it. To them winter is a natural course to be anticipated. Starvation is never in their midst. Quite the opposite: they thrive in the face of hardship. Their bellies are full, their nests are warmly constructed, and their inventories are well stocked. So what then do we learn from these woodland creatures?

As a business owner, I alone cannot avoid, fix or mitigate the financial crisis. So instead of trying to control the “uncontrollables,” I can focus my attention on controlling the “controllables.” Like a squirrel, I do not squander time fretting about the plummeting thermometer, or food shortages. Rather, I accept the conditions before me and press forward with a plan to overcome the challenges. Right now is a season of preparation and I must do all that I can to weather the inevitability of market changes.

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How can technology help you prepare for the economic downturn?

There are many ways, in fact, but let’s start by gazing into a low-tech device: a mirror. Hold one up to your business and what do you see? Well, I’m sure a lot, but specifically, I suggest you examine your employees and their behaviors. Have you ever asked yourself, “What do my employees do all day long”? According to the Salary.com website, in 2007 the average employee wasted 1.7 hours of an 8.5-hour workday. Of this time, nearly 35 percent was consumed by personal Internet use. Let me be brutally blunt. In my professional experience I have a limitless pool of evidence to support these figures. We observe both the damning evidence of such conduct as well as the aftermath it often causes. We are constantly fixing the mess caused by the questionable actions of people. Malware is constantly wreaking havoc on computer systems, and despite what you might think; the computer did not do it to itself.

What does this cost my business?

First, based on the statistics above, you can quickly calculate the hard cost to your business when employees goof off in terms of time and total compensation. Second, consider the demoralizing impact on serious-minded employees. The unscrupulous behavior of some often goes unnoticed by management but is plainly obvious to co-workers. A good employee who is subject to these conditions may form a negative opinion of their workplace, join in on the games, or leave altogether. Third, personal use of the Internet can compromise the security and stability of your computer systems. As I stated, my technicians are constantly repairing the damage caused by spyware and viruses. In practically every instance, we can trace the fault back to the user visiting websites with no apparent business purpose. This is a double whammy: the cost of downtime and the cost of the repair itself. Fourth, is the potential legal liability. I am by no means a human resources expert or a lawyer, however, common sense tells me that giving employees unfettered and unchecked access to the Internet potentially opens negative doors such as sexual harassment and other illicit or illegal activity.

So what are they doing?

There are a lot of ways employees can stray from work into personal matters or nefarious activity on your dime. In fact, the ease and speed of Internet access today is the proverbial loaded gun. So here is a list of some of the more popular offenses: instant messaging with friends, downloading music, viewing pornography, shopping, searching for another job, unauthorized sharing of corporate information with outside parties, gambling (yep, poker is still red hot), spending time on social websites (think: MySpace and FaceBook), playing online games, blogging, watching TV shows (yes, many are available via the web), etc. The list is long and frightening. How would you feel if even just one person at your firm spent a couple hours a day doing these things? Would it surprise you?

Let me conclude by answering my opening question about what technologies can help you and why this is important. In any economic downturn there is an assumption that revenues will be flat or decline. Thus businesses must find ways to reduce costs and increase productivity. I have shown you both hard and soft costs to target. Depending on your situation, those cuts could be significant. But to achieve this you need to implement two very important strategies. First, your company needs to have a written policy. It needs to state that all electronic information is owned by the company and all electronic activity is subject to monitoring. You also need to define what type of activity is considered acceptable (i.e. online shopping during lunch break) and unacceptable (i.e. joke e-mails). Your employees also need to be aware of and understand this policy as well as the consequences of any violations. Second, you need to make good on your promises. This is where a lot of companies fall very short. Although the expense for proper monitoring and reporting technology could amount to several thousand dollars, it is a budget that is easily justifiable. In fact, there is a huge potential savings when you consider the increase of productivity, and minimization of risk. However, there is a dark side to all this. Be careful how you approach monitoring. Although I firmly believe in these controls, you do not want to create a contentious atmosphere between employer and employee.

If you think your company could benefit from a more detailed analysis of your Internet usage, please contact me. I promise to leave the squirrels at home. They saw me coming a mile away.

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Robert Cioffi is managing partner of Progressive Computing, Inc. of Yonkers. He can be reached at (914) 375-3009 or by e-mail at rcioffi@pro-comp.com.

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