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Shopping online at work? More employers look the other way

November 26, 2014, 4:27 PM UTC
online shopping
online shopping
Photograph by John Lamb—Getty Images

Braving the local mall this weekend may appeal to fewer shoppers this year than last, but online stores expect a cheery Cyber Monday. With total holiday sales forecast at $617 billion, up about 4% over last year, online shopping will jump 16%, according to the National Federation of Retailers—and more of those online shoppers will be sitting at their desks, especially if they work at tech companies.

The number of companies allowing “unrestricted access” to non-work sites has leapt 17 percentage points in just the past two years, says a new survey from staffing firm Robert Half Technology, and fewer employers bother monitoring for “excessive” web surfing. Altogether, about two-thirds (69%) have given up trying to keep people from shopping at work.

That’s not to say that the IT department is always thrilled with it. “There’s still a higher risk of corrupting the network when you have large numbers of employees visiting a lot of outside sites,” notes John Reed, RHT’s senior executive director. “But, even so, there’s more upside to allowing it than to trying to lock it down.”

One reason is that people bent on, say, the latest Disney “Frozen” doll or an Xbox One are nothing if not determined. “So it’s either a three-hour lunch for a trip to the mall, or 10 minutes online at their work stations,” observes Reed. The rise of BYOD (bring your own device) policies in most workplaces plays a part, too. “From a productivity standpoint, you gain nothing by blocking retail sites,” Reed says. “People will just use their own iPads.”

A subtler reason for turning a blind eye to online shopping is that “employees want control over their own time,” Reed notes. “So employers are trying harder to be flexible. They’re looking for any edge that will keep talent, especially tech talent, from taking a phone call from a recruiter.”

Besides, it’s tough to tell people they can’t shop online during work hours when they see their bosses doing it. More than half (53%) of senior managers—defined as “C-suite executives, vice presidents, directors, managers, and supervisors” —admit they’ll use company time to go cyber-shopping, says CareerBuilder’s 2014 Cyber Monday survey, versus 46% of professional and entry-level staffers who say the same.

If gift-buying online at the office looks like a major distraction, consider the following: It could help people focus on their work by serving as a seasonal stress reliever. A 2013 poll by the National Federation of Retailers found that 46% of women, and 78% of men, ranked in-person shopping—and battling the holiday crowds—as “more stressful than a trip to the DMV.”