Just as they did last year, millions of shoppers are going online as part of the Internet's holiday gift-buying frenzy. But unlike last year, many are doing so from the comfort of their office cubicles.
Businesses have dramatically relaxed their restrictions on employees using work computers to do a little e-shopping. Last year, 60 percent of U.S. companies locked out shopping websites from their computers. This year, the practice has dropped by nearly half, according to a pair of recent surveys.
"Companies are trying to find ways to be more flexible," said Michelle Love, chief marketing officer for MRA, parent company of the Plymouth-based human resources consulting firm Trusight.
MRA, which consults with about 5,000 companies -- 1,000 of them in Minnesota -- is in the process of compiling new figures from a just-completed survey. The final report won't be published until January, but Love shared some preliminary data, including the finding that almost 60 percent of the firm's clients said they allow personal use of the Internet and e-mail during work hours.
That's in line with numbers released earlier this month by Robert Half Technology, which said only 33 percent of companies nationwide currently block access to online shopping sites. That's a drop of 27 percentage points from the same survey a year ago.
Beth Salzl, of Roseville, said her employer lets workers shop on their work computers -- within certain parameters.
"We have to do it on our lunch hour," she said. "And we're blocked from certain sites where it could be embarrassing to have purchases tracked to the company," such as online pharmaceutical sales. "But all the major sites, like Amazon, are no problem whatsoever."
Many companies told the surveyors that letting employees do a little personal business boosts overall productivity.
That might sound counterintuitive, but the logic behind the thinking is sound, said John Budd, chair of the Center for Human Resources and Labor Studies at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. Employers who spend a lot of effort trying to create an engaged workforce shoot themselves in the foot when they demonstrate a lack of trust in their workers, he said.
"Morale can suffer, as can the company's ability to recruit and retain employees," Budd added.
Companies also are putting more pressure on employees' free time, he said, and they can't have it both ways. Restrictions on what a person can do at work "are especially galling when workers are expected to remain connected to the workplace via e-mail and smartphones 24 hours a day," he said.
Oftentimes, there's a caveat attached to the personal use of company gear: It must be "within reason," said John Reed, senior executive director of Robert Half Technology.
And what's deemed reasonable can vary. Like Salzl's employer, companies might designate certain times of the day in which personal computing is permitted. If you're allowed to noodle online during work time, you shouldn't let your inbox overflow while filling up your shopping cart.
No deal is so good that it's worth losing your job over, he said.
Love said that her firm advises clients to set policies that give the employees leeway.
"You don't want to get too specific," she said. "It works better if you have general parameters that can serve as guidelines. Then if someone starts abusing it, you can take them aside and deal with it."
Budd agreed that the Big Brother approach is less effective.
"Employers should instead give employees the autonomy to fulfill their job responsibilities in ways that are most effective for them as responsible human beings," he said, "and then deal directly with any performance concerns if they arise, rather than excessively monitoring and regulating workers."
If your company doesn't allow you to shop from your desk, it doesn't necessarily mean that they're going Ebenezer Scrooge on you, Love said. They might just be nervous about making their computer system vulnerable.
"For a lot of companies [that ban personal computer use], the primary issue is risk management," she said. "They're worried about hackers, and they're worried about viruses. Once you let the outside world in, it's open season on your computer system."
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392