Online holiday shopping at work may be huge suck on time, bandwidth

With the official start of the holidays upon us, what are you workers really doing?

With Black Friday just a week away and the nagging feeling that we need to get our holiday shopping done, the question is how much online buying will actually be done at work?

If it's not, this is the question that should be on IT managers' minds, according to some industry analysts. Because if workers are busy buying scarves or Apple iPad tablets on sites like LLBean.com, Amazon.com or Apple.com, the company's productivity could plummet as fast as winter temperatures.

That's not to mention what all that holiday shopping during office hours could mean for office bandwidth.

"We know it's going to happen. I think it's unavoidable," said Jim Melvin, president and CEO of AppNeta, a performance management company based in Boston. "We take our work home with us and we take our lives into work. If it's my laptop and I'm at work and I'm having a coffee break, I'm going to get my shopping done. We're seeing more and more of this blending of work and home life."

That blending, say Melvin and industry analysts, is being exacerbated by the consumerization of IT.

With workers using their own smartphones and tablets for work, they are feeling more free to use them to check off items on their holiday shopping lists during work hours. After all, they figure they can do what they want on their own device.

The issue, though, is that they're using the company network and, often, they're shopping on company time.

"I'm sure in my company it's only on their coffee break but outside of my company I think people are shopping when the mood strikes them," Melvin joked. "There's no question that bring your own device accentuates people's tendency for shopping while they're at work."

Frank Gillett, an analyst with Forrester, said there's a definite blurring of lines between work and personal life and that's going to affect what people do during office hours -- and shopping is no exception.

"Face it, we're more connected," said Gillett. "There's simply more opportunity out there for people to try to figure out how to juggle your work/life balance.

Another factor affecting how much online shopping people will do at work is the simple fact that people are expected to do a lot more of their holiday buying online this year.

Actually, a recent study by eMarketer showed that U.S. online shoppers are expected to spend $54.47 billion this holiday season. That's up 16.8% from $46.63 billion spent online last year.

So what's an IT manager to do?

Well, first corporate executives need to set up policies about what is acceptable for workers to do online while they're on the clock or while they're using the company network at any time. Then they need to educate employees about those policies and set up technology to monitor the network.

They also need to know what the punishments will be if workers are caught breaking the rules.

However, Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, said IT managers need to take a breath and relax. This just isn't something to get that worked up about.

"I don't think it is worth worrying about," he said. "The potential for abuse is much smaller than other things, like social networking or even pornography. It's seasonal. Why be a Scrooge?"

Gottheil pointed out that so many employees are doing work on their personal time, that it's not really fair to begrudge them of doing some personal errands on work time.

"If you do your job well, you should have some flexibility about your time, within reasonable limits," he added. "I prefer to manage to productivity, and not try to control people."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

Read more about staff management in Computerworld's Staff Management Topic Center.

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