Should companies relax their IT policy? And er…let you bring your Mac to work?

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In an article ‘Why you can’t use personal technology at office?‘,  WSJ outlines a scenario familiar to both companies and employees alike, especially in India. It talks of the double life we lead: restricted internet access – especially the social media kind (if you work in a large company with a strict IT policy), sluggish computer running aging software (most probably XP), slow to average internet speeds and inability to install or update software on your own. At home we are slowly getting used to broadband speeds thanks and absolute freedom of choice both in hardware and software.

This is the double life many people lead: yesterday’s technology for work, today’s technology for everything else. The past decade has brought awesome innovations to the marketplace—Internet search, the iPhone, Twitter and so on—but consumers, not companies, embrace them first and with the most gusto.

Companies have solid reasons behind such restrictions: fear of malware, fear of information leak, fear of productivity loss. And there is the cost aspect – a ‘one size fits all’ mass order of hardware & software brings down costs. Not to mention the standardization of egos. A person who dares to use something that is not ‘prescribed’ is seen as a maverick, a potential trouble maker, a challenger of authority. The employees usually comply (do they have a choice?) but there are enough examples of circumventing the system. Surreptitious installations and new technologies come into play. Can’t access Gmail or Facebook through your office PC? No problem. Your average mobile phone can. Can’t download videos? Connect your data card.

Sure, there are enough examples of employees misusing the freedom of technology at work – so much so it becomes a hindrance to productivity. Instead of thinking on the project at hand, latest updates on Facebook serves as a distraction. But given enough motivation (and work!), employees are unlikely to misuse technology (read, Facebook) in the office. And when employers expect employees to attend to work-related office even after office hours nowadays, a little bit of relaxation at work, doesn’t hurt anyone. If ‘cyberslacking’ is the fear, banning Facebook or internet access is not the elixir. Employees can be unproductive even without Facebook.

Companies that are in the consumer business have also begun to realize that employees need to be in sync with the stuff their customers are into. They need to be in places where consumers are, as Kraft realized.

So, the IT department stopped blocking access to consumer Web sites, and the company started a stipend program for smart phones: Workers get an allowance every 18 months to buy a phone of their choosing. (Over 60% picked iPhones.)

Yum. Such freedom comes with riders: at Kraft, employees who choose to use a Mac can’t go to the help desk and have to rely on online communities for trouble shooting.

So should companies give unbridled access to technology in office and make it a free for all? There aren’t easy answers. While it can improve productivity there are pitfalls too – not all computer users are savvy enough to stave off malware and viruses. Some could go rogue too. But given the rise of technology in our lives and an online existence being almost mandatory even at work place, companies should be a little more flexible with technology, me thinks. And employees should be made aware that with freedom comes responsibility. Clearly, the pressure to ease up on IT policies is rising. As the article said, youngsters look at the corporate desktop and say, ‘I can’t work with that!’ Now that’s something many of us would want to say.

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