It wasn’t that many decades ago when an employee could get into trouble for using “company equipment for personal use” — in other words, using the telephone on their desk for personal, non-company calls. And then along came e-mail, and although in the beginning it wasn’t a big issue, as more and more people got e-mail accounts at home, the same issues arose. As the World Wide Web exploded during the 1990’s, the problem began to explode. Employees were sitting at their desk and shopping, chatting, and surfing the web, and companies responded by doing everything possible to block certain websites and restrict access for non-business matters. How many thousands of otherwise good employees were called on the carpet, disciplined, and in some cases even fired for their non-conforming behavior?
Now the entire problem has morphed again, in keeping up with the changes in technology. With the ever-present smart cell phones, the use of “company property” has virtually become a moot point. With a few clicks on a barely visible device of their own, a desk worker today can connect with the world and everyone in it, endlessly surf the internet, and through social networking, even quietly and subtly communicate with whoever they choose.
So what’s an employer to do? They’ve tried most everything! I was recently brought in to help a firm that was operating a large call center that had quite suddenly experienced a large uptick in turnover in one of their units. While the units in other buildings on the site were experiencing no issues, this one unit had seen its turnover double in less than 6 months and they needed to know why. We examined the site, interviewed the managers and employees, and even tried anonymous surveying to get at the cause — all to no avail. I was chatting once with an IT Tech who serviced the unit, who mentioned that his job was extra tough because of the “crazy security features” the landlord had set up in that particular building for his own business. It seems that this neighboring business had set up an electromagnetic shielding/scrambling system, so that no wireless signals could enter – or leave the building. This meant any of the employees working inside that building were unable to ever use a cell phone, even on their breaks. Because of the tight security, entering/leaving the building was not something one could do easily, so most workers just remained inside for their entire shift.
The resolution was straightforward. Right away, an “unshielded” lunch room was set up, where employee could use their cells at will. Within 3 months, the landlord had agreed to “unshield” the entire portion of the building that the call center was in. Within six months, attrition in the unit and productivity figures had returned to normal, on par with other similar units in the company.
A Teaching Moment
When the problem was at first partially fixed and the employees were allowed unfettered communication ability from the lunch room, the company’s management wanted to stop there, stating that that was the only location and time of day they were allowed to take care of personal business anyway. We encouraged them to follow through and complete the rest of the project, thus allowing total access whenever the employees were on site. They took the advice, and were astounded at the morale improvement!
Management had learned well the lesson that it is fruitless to try to control the moment to moment behavior of your workforce – it’s detrimental to morale and productivity. Instead, they have learned to rely on measuring the employees’ performance with throughput and outcome data — the only real metric that counts toward the bottom line.