Should You Let Your Employees Shop Online at Work?

Shopping online in the office can actually be beneficial.

More Americans than ever before are shopping online — and a significant number of them are doing so at work. This is especially true during the holiday season when people find it hard to fit gift-buying into their already-crammed schedules. 

So should you play Santa or Scrooge? Do you let your employees shop on the job — or forbid it entirely? Surveys show many companies are allowing at least a little online shopping, but with limits.  

Robert Half Technology, an IT staffing firm, surveyed 2,400 CIOs in 2014. It found that the number who let employees visit online shopping sites freely had jumped to 27% — up 17 percentage points from 2012.  

However, most employers — 42% — let their workers visit online shopping sites, but monitored the time they spent to ensure employees didn't go overboard. 

Another third — 30% — blocked online shopping sites entirely.  

CareerBuilder surveyed online holiday shopping in the workplace. The 2014 survey of about 2,200 HR pros and 3,100 full-time workers found that, on average, 47% planned to shop online, down from 54% in 2013. However, among senior-level staffers, 53% planned to shop online. White-collar workers, such as IT pros, were more likely to shop (71%) than those without easy access to desks and computers (only 29% of retail workers expected to shop). 

A slim majority of employers restricted online shopping in CareerBuilder's survey: 53% forbid access to certain shopping sites, and about 8% had fired employees caught shopping online.  

A third survey by FindLaw, found that 35% of Americans shopped online during work. Reasons included: to keep purchases secret (28%), having no time outside of work (24%) and better Internet connection (17%). 

If you do want to allow some online shopping during your work hours, other benefits of 9-5 online shopping include: 

1. Relief from stress

The American Management Association recommends letting your employees shop online to alleviate one of the biggest sources of holiday stress: gift buying. Even beyond the holiday season, allowing workers a few minutes here and there can help them keep their work and personal lives in balance. 

2. Improved morale

Letting workers cybershop can foster workplace engagement, holiday spirit and camaraderie in the office, notes blogger Scott Matthew in Talent Tribune. Providing a few minutes in the day for non-work activities such as online shopping shows employees you recognize the challenges they face while trusting that they can manage their time.  

On the other hand, Matthew points out, "blocking websites and monitoring employees’ online activity looks a lot like micromanaging — which can have a negative effect on workplace morale."  

3. Lower absenteeism

A survey in 2014 of Canadian workers found that nearly 1 million planned to call in sick on Cyber Monday, while 4 million planned to take a vacation day. Another 2.3 million planned to shop at work.

If you allow workers to shop for a brief time, particularly on Cyber Monday, they are less likely to call in sick to get their shopping done. That way, you don't lose them for an entire day. 

4. Increased productivity

Retail management expert Richard Feinberg tells that forbidding workplace shopping "may cause hostility and dissatisfaction in the workforce, which also can lead to lost productivity ... It may be that allowing workers to shop on the job actually increases productivity." 

When considering your online shopping policy, MotherG blogger Daniel Oh suggests reviewing what happened during past holiday seasons. Did last year's Cyber Monday cause problems or a significant drop in productivity? If not, then ease off on restrictions.  

Instead, Oh suggests, communicate openly with employees about your expectations in a way that builds mutual trust and respect. Consider giving employees a holiday gift by allowing them to shop for a limited period, such as an hour on Cyber Monday. Your employees will appreciate you for it. 

Lorna Collier is a Chicago-area writer whose articles about business and technology have appeared in the AARP Bulletin, Intuit Small Business Blog, Workforce Management, Crain’s Chicago Business, CNN, US News, the Chicago Tribune, and others. Follow her @lornacollier.

All content provided herein is for educational purposes only. It is provided “as is” and neither the author, publisher nor Triad Digital Media, LLC d/b/a Triad Retail Media warrant the accuracy of the information provided, nor do they assume any responsibility for errors, omissions or contrary interpretation of the subject matter herein.

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