Less of the furrowed browse

5th October 2007 at 01:00

AN EAGLE-EYED boss in South Wales has spotted that his staff weren't actually working for Neath Port Talbot Council, as they were paid to. Instead they were whiling away their days browsing the internet.

Now, as an employee all my working life, I'm generally on the side of the workers when it comes to a dispute. But if you're going to spend up to two hours a day on eBay (doing what, for God's sake?), you can hardly be surprised when your manager starts whispering "P45" into your shell-like. Even their union, Unison, was pretty half-hearted in their defence, blaming the employers for putting "temptation in their way" by allowing internet access in the first place.

More to the point, where does it leave the rest of us poor public service drones? Could it be that, even as I write, senior managers in colleges across Britain are exclaiming "Aha!" and setting off, with determined tread, in the direction of the computer support department? After all, they will reason, most lecturers also have constant internet access. How many of them might be lured away from their students by the siren song of those "recreational" sites?

Far be it from me to be the one who blows the gaff, but let's be honest: it happens. I have a colleague, for instance, whose favourite site I urge you to make a note if you're not already familiar with it is www.wrx.zen.co.uk. This is a one-stop portal to all British newspapers published online for free.

So is this simply a case of "chap sitting round all day reading the papers"? Of course not. The lecturer concerned teaches media studies and is no doubt saving the college's petty cash fund a tidy sum by not buying the papers he can read for free online.

But what of another lecturer I know who confesses to occasionally resorting to "pornography for the 40ish female" or Marks and Spencer's online clothes catalogue, for the uninitiated. More Mamp;S than Samp;M, you might think though to me any form of clothes shopping smacks, if you'll forgive the pun, of masochism. In the lecturer's defence, I should point out that she often works 10-hour days and habitually has "lunch hours" that are 45 minutes shorter than they should be.

And then, before the cyber snoopers get too carried away, perhaps we'd better consider the other side of the coin. By which I mean that virtually all colleges these days have given their employees the "benefit" of accessing their online work at home.

I was giving my new students my college email address the other day. Although I'm only on site three days a week, I explained, I check my messages pretty much every day. "Even on a Sunday?" one asked. I nodded meekly, noting the how-sad-is-that expressions that followed.

And, of course, it's not just emails. The marvels of remote-access technology mean that these days we can get into our desktops from anywhere with an internet connection. Some resolute souls refuse to do this. They know where to draw the line. But there are many others who have cheerfully swallowed the "benefit" argument in order to mop up all those irritating tasks that don't quite fit into the working day.

So, let's be positive. College managers are reasonable people. Surely they can see that it can't be all take and no give when it comes to the wonders of the web. Can't they?

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