How Has the Internet Affected Trust in the Workplace?

The Internet has changed working and personal lives.
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Since it became accessible in the mid-1990s, the Internet has had a major impact on the workplace. From email communication with colleagues and customers to ecommerce, social media and smartphones, the majority of business and personal communication is now conducted over the Internet. As a consequence, there has been some blurring of lines between professional and personal lives. This raises issues concerning trust in the workplace.

Shopping Risks

    Anyone connected to the Internet has access to a vast international shopping mall at the click of a mouse. For employers this creates two problems. Staff who use online shopping sites at work may inadvertently introduce viruses and other security threats. A greater fear is that staff will spend their entire working days surfing and shopping, leading to a drop in productivity. The first issue can be addressed by training. The second is a matter of trust: employers must decide if they trust their employees to restrict their personal Internet activity during the day so that it does not affect their work.

    Employees are trusted not to tackle personal to-do lists at work.

Employer Trust

    In fact, most employers do trust their employees to use the Internet responsibly. A November 2012 survey by Robert Harris Technology of 1400 chief information officers revealed that only 33 percent of companies block access to Internet shopping sites. The others either allow unrestricted access, or they allow access and monitor for excessive use. The Chief Executive of Robert Harris Technology, John Reed, said in a press release that by trusting their employees to limit their personal Internet use and allowing them to tackle personal to-do lists at work, these companies can raise productivity.

Flexible Working

    Wireless connections and laptop ownership make it possible for employees to tap into their company network from any location, leading to a rise in telecommuting at least some of the time. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010, some 22.9 percent of men and 24.5 percent of women expected to do some or all of their work at home. This also involves trust. Employers have to change their focus to measuring outcomes rather than time served in the office, and trust that employees will not in fact spend all day in front of the TV. Employees tend to repay that trust, however. A report by Staffordshire University in the U.K. revealed typical productivity improvements of between 20 and 30 percent.

    Working from home can lead to higher productivity.

Social Media

    Social media has further blurred the lines between employees' professional and personal lives. Many colleagues are Facebook friends and may even be expected to "like" their company's Facebook page. Employees may have personal blogs and comment on other blogs and forums, while every career-minded person is on LinkedIn. This means that most workers have online identities that connect them to their employers, but over which their employers have no control. Companies may develop stringent social media policies and may even be able to discipline staff for bringing their employers into disrepute. But, ultimately, they have to trust that their employees behave professionally at all times, whether at or outside work.

Knowledge Sharing

    Most trust issues in the workplace exist between employer and employee. But the subject of knowledge sharing can raise questions of trust between employees. In knowledge-based organizations, such as professional firms, knowledge is power and is proprietary to each professional. As firms have adapted to the Internet, they have seen its potential and have tried to encourage their staff to use Internet-based tools to pool knowledge. This has been met with varying success, as individual employees are often reluctant to trust other staff with their own knowledge, which represents their source of power and security.

    It takes trust to share professional knowledge.

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