Firms watching game watchers

Some log March Madness viewing at work while other set up office pools and TVs

March 15, 2007|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,Sun Reporter

Patrick Osborne typically monitors the computer network at the American Association of Airport Executives, where he works to make sure traffic is running smoothly and servers aren't causing bottlenecks.

Next week, though, Osborne, senior vice president of information systems for the Alexandria, Va.-based association, plans to check for spikes in bandwidth use today and tomorrow - a clue that could mean workers are using their computers to watch basketball.

"If I see anomalies, I'm going to investigate," Osborne said.

With NCAA March Madness kicking off today and the games available through live streaming video online, experts say basketball could become a major distraction at work. March Madness could cost employers up to $1.2 billion in lost productivity, according to Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. The firm estimates that 22.9 million workers visit March Madness-related Web sites during the tournament.

The NCAA Web site even has a "Boss Button" that users can click to instantly turn the video they're watching into a spreadsheet if the boss walks past their computer.

Six percent of companies will make an effort to keep workers from visiting March Madness Web sites, according to a Challenger survey in February of about 100 human resources executives. Other companies are taking the opposite tack, organizing office pools and setting up TVs to tune in the games.

"We live in a world today where the line between work and personal life has changed - we've drawn a new line. In fact, in some ways there's no longer a sharp dividing line," said John A. Challenger, chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "When you have an event like this, why not utilize it to allow people to talk with each other about something other than the latest business transaction?"

Office TVs could also alleviate another potential problem: computer network servers that become so sluggish because of live feeds from basketball games that business is disrupted. Last year, video streams of March Madness action from NCAAsports.com were accessed more than 19 million times, according to NCAAsports.com.

To check who's watching the game at the American Association of Airport Executives, Osborne will be using the technology of eTelemetry Inc., an Annapolis company that makes hardware to monitor network traffic. eTelemetry's hardware can tell by employee name how much time each person is spending on the Internet, what sites he or she visits and how much time is spent on each site.

"If someone spends half of their day on eBay, even if eBay is an allowed site in your corporate environment, you still want to know if someone is spending half of their day doing it, and that's where our product comes in," said Ermis Sfakiyanudis, eTelemetry's president and chief executive officer.

If critical components of a company's network are running slowly because a worker is streaming games onto a desktop, eTelemetry's technology can alert them to that as well, Sfakiyanudis said. Clients range from technology companies to hospitals to property management companies.

Companies monitor Web use for a variety of reasons, from productivity to security, said Eric Hodge, director of technology risk management for the capital region offices of Jefferson Wells, a professional services firm that specializes in technology risk management.

"Anytime you open up another path to the Web or to the Internet, you're creating an opportunity for a hacker or for someone to get in or information to get out," Hodge said.

Some companies check how often workers go to sites unrelated to work or how often they download video, while others are checking to see how much bandwidth employees are using.

"Streaming a basketball game or any kind of video is going to take up a lot of bandwidth," Hodge said.

T. Rowe Price Group Inc. in Baltimore, for instance, doesn't have a specific policy about watching March Madness games on work computers. "We trust that our employees will get their work done, and we will monitor our systems ... as we do all the time, just to make sure that there would not be any impact to our systems," spokesman Brian Lewbart said.

Seventy-six percent of companies monitor workers' Web use, and 65 percent block connections to inappropriate Web sites, according to the American Management Association and ePolicy Institute's 2005 survey of 526 companies, the most recent survey available on the topic.

Employers' biggest concern is inappropriate Web surfing, according to the survey. Twenty-six percent have fired workers for abusing their Web privileges and 25 percent for abusing e-mail, the survey found.

Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute in Princeton, N.J., believes employers have legitimate concerns about workers spending too much time on the Web. But monitoring which Web sites individuals go to is extremely invasive, he said.

"People don't call Dear Abby anymore when they have a problem, they go to the Internet," Maltby said. "People go to the Internet for advice on the most sensitive problems in their lives ... and the reason people go to the Internet is because they can do so anonymously."

Maltby believes employers should have detailed policies about how much personal Web surfing is allowed, then use software to enforce those policies.

"You don't need to monitor where people go to prevent them from abusing the Internet," Maltby said.

Sfakiyanudis said eTelemetry's technology can aid companies in enforcing their Internet policies. If, for instance, a worker is spending 60 percent of the day on the Internet, eTelemetry can provide the proof. "This becomes a way to quantify actual usage for policy enforcement," he said.

stacey.hirsh@baltsun.com

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