Why corporate IT should unchain our office computers.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Aug. 25 2009 6:40 PM

Unchain the Office Computers!

Why corporate IT should let us browse any way we want.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

During a town hall meeting for State Department workers last month, an employee named Jim Finkle asked Hillary Clinton a very important question: "Can you please let the staff use an alternative Web browser called Firefox?" The room erupted in cheers. Finkle explained that he'd previously worked at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, where everyone enjoyed Firefox. "So I don't understand why State can't use it," he said. "It's a much safer program."

You don't have to know Jim Finkle or anyone else at the State Department to recognize their pain. Millions of workers around the world are in the same straits: They've heard about the joys of Firefox, the wonders of Google Docs, or any number of other great programs or Web sites that might improve how they work. Indeed, they use these apps at home all the time, and they love them. But at work they're stymied by the IT department, that class of interoffice Brahmins that decides, ridiculously and capriciously, how people should work.

The secretary of state didn't know why Firefox was blocked; an aide stepped in to explain that the free program was too expensive—"it has to be administered, the patches have to be loaded." Isn't that how it always is? You ask your IT manager to let you use something that seems pretty safe and run-of-the-mill, and you're given an outlandish stock answer about administrative costs and unseen dangers lurking on the Web. Like TSA guards at the airport, workplace IT wardens are rarely amenable to rational argument. That's because, in theory, their mission seems reasonable. Computers, like airplanes, can be dangerous things—they can breed viruses and other malware, they can consume enormous resources meant for other tasks, and they're portals to great expanses of procrastination. So why not lock down workplace computers?

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Here's why: The restrictions infantilize workers—they foster resentment, reduce morale, lock people into inefficient routines, and, worst of all, they kill our incentives to work productively. In the information age, most companies' success depends entirely on the creativity and drive of their workers. IT restrictions are corrosive to that creativity—they keep everyone under the thumb of people who have no idea which tools we need to do our jobs but who are charged with deciding anyway.

If I sound a bit over-exercised about what seems like an uncontroversial practice, it's because I am—for too long, office workers of the world have taken IT restrictions sitting down. Most of my co-workers at Slate labor away on machines that are under bureaucratic control; they need special dispensation to install anything that requires running an installation program, even programs that have been proved to be safe—anything that uses the increasingly popular Adobe AIR platform or new versions of major Web browsers. Other friends are blocked from visiting large swaths of the Web. IT departments install filtering programs that block not only adult sites but anything that might allow for goofing off on "company time," including e-mail and chat programs, dating sites, shopping sites, and news sites like Digg or Reddit (or even Slate).

Different IT managers have different aims, of course. At some companies—like Slate—the techs are mainly trying to keep the network secure; preventing people from installing programs is a simple and effective (if blunt) way to ensure that corporate computers don't ingest scary stuff. Other firms want to do something even more sinister: keep workers from having fun. These companies block the Web and various other online distractions on the theory that a cowed work force is an efficient one. But that's not really the case.

One obvious problem with such restrictions is that they're arbitrary. In blocking "dangerous" sites or programs, IT managers inevitably restrict many more useful applications. One editor at a large New York publishing house told me that the art department at his company is constantly running into the firm's net-nanny filtering program. An artist will need to look up, say, pictures of 14th-century Ottoman swords in order to illustrate a fantasy novel—and she'll run into a notice saying, "Access to that site has been blocked because of the following category: Weapons." (It's a measure of the IT department's power that all the office workers I interviewed for this article would talk only on background; no one wants to get on the wrong side of his tech master.) Or consider this madness: Even though many companies are now looking to popularize their products or brands using social-networking sites, IT departments routinely restrict access to Facebook, Twitter, and their ilk.

What's worse, because they aren't tasked with understanding how people in different parts of a company do their jobs, IT managers often can't appreciate how profoundly certain tools can improve how we work. As I've written before, switching from Outlook to Gmail changed my life; hosting my e-mail at Google freed me from methodically backing up old mail, which is an important way I remember my reporting contacts. When I worked in an office not long ago, though, a new man in IT decided that forwarding company mail to my Gmail account might violate the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. I tried to explain that was ridiculous—Sarbanes-Oxley proscribes deleting mail, which I wasn't doing, and, anyway, the IT department had no problem forwarding mail to people's BlackBerries and iPhones. But he wouldn't budge. And it's not just Gmail: I can name several programs—plugins for Outlook or Firefox, desktop Twitter clients, local search programs like Google Desktop, and lots of other apps that have yet to be invented—that might let people work faster or more efficiently. But IT departments can take years to approve such advances; there are office workers all over America still stuck using IE 6.

You might argue that firms need to make sure that people stay on task—if employees were allowed to do whatever they wanted at work, nobody would get anything done. But in many instances, that claim is ridiculous. My fiancée works at a hospital that blocks all instant-messaging programs. Now, she and her co-workers are doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals—they've been through years of training in which they've proved that they can stay on task even despite the allure of online chat. Can anyone seriously argue that the hospital would suddenly grind to a halt if they were allowed to use IM at work?

Indeed, there's no empirical evidence that unfettered access to the Internet turns people into slackers at work. The research shows just the opposite. Brent Corker, a professor of marketing at the University of Melbourne, recently tested how two sets of workers—one group that was blocked from using the Web and another that had free access—perform various tasks. Corker found that those who could use the Web were 9 percent more productive than those who couldn't. Why? Because we aren't robots; people with Web access took short breaks to look online while doing their work, and the distractions kept them sharper than the folks who had no choice but to keep on task.

Corker's finding fits in with a long line of research that shows distractions can sometimes be good for the mind. Doodling, for instance, helps us stay more alert at meetings. Indeed, Daniel Pink, the author of the upcoming Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, has pointed out that some of the world's most innovative companies are also the most relaxed about goof-off workers. At Google—which, like most big tech firms, imposes no restrictions on workers' computers—people are encouragedto spend time doing stuff that is unrelated to their jobs. Everyone at Pixar is allowed to spend many hours every week attending classes on filmmaking, painting, drawing, creative writing, and other subjects. And Netflix has no vacation plan—people can take as much time off as they like as long as their work gets done.

There is a jargony HR phrase that describes these forward-looking firms: They're called "results-only workplace environments," where people are judged on what they produce, not how. As Netflix CEO Reed Hastings once told a reporter, "I want managers to come to me and say, 'Let's give a really big raise to Sally because she's getting a lot done'—not because she's chained to her desk." This jibes with Pink's argument that it's a sense of autonomy—rather than money—that drive employees to work hard. People work best, he argues, when they feel they're being left alone to do their jobs. But it's hard to feel that way if your computer is constantly throwing up roadblocks in your path.

OK, but shouldn't firms at least do something about viruses and porn? Sure. Rather than restrict access for everyone—ensuring that nobody ever learns which programs are genuinely bad news and which are blocked just for convenience's sake—they can educate workers about how to use their computers. IT departments could also block the most-obviously ruinous sites, places that traffic in illegal material, like the Pirate Bay, or that have been flagged as repositories of dangerous software. But doing any more than that is counterproductive. As one locked-down worker told me, blocking parts of the Web "systematically makes the company stupider" about the innovation now flooding into our lives. Systematic stupidity is rarely a plan for success.

Killer Apps: Farhad Manjoo reviews Ninja Words, the best dictionary for iPhone.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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