Personal technology at office

The Baltimore Sun

Every week, when I sit down to write this column, I follow a basic routine: I grab my laptop, collect my notes and turn on my iPod. The last step may seem to be unprofessional, but trust me: Were I not able to plug in those white ear buds, I'd have a lot more trouble tuning out background noise and getting my work done.

According to at least one study (and plenty of anecdotal evidence), I'm not the only one to use personal technology in the office.

In a 2006 survey conducted by staffing agency Spherion Corp. and market-research firm Harris Interactive, 32 percent of workers said they sometimes listen to a personal music device while working. And of those employees, 79 percent said doing so improved their job satisfaction and/or productivity.

Many employers have started to acknowledge there are potential benefits, especially with their youngest and most tech-oriented workers.

"I think companies should embrace this technology in the office," said Michael Erwin, senior career adviser at He points out that through applications such as Facebook and instant messaging, "employees can exchange a lot of ideas."

Many businesses agree - as long as work, not chatting with friends, remains the priority. Still, it's a good idea to learn your employer's rules for using personal technology in the office.

Here are a few general guidelines to follow, as well as more specific policies from some of the biggest employers of recent college graduates:

*Ask upfront.

Not all companies have an explicit "iPod" policy. But you can be sure that within your department, co-workers follow a certain protocol, even if it's unwritten.

Progressive Corp., an insurance provider, for example, doesn't have corporate guidelines on using personal technology, but each of the company's divisions does set rules, said Kathy Bell, a company spokeswoman.

"The frequency of use will vary by business unit," Bell said.

Make sure you follow the lead of your colleagues. Or if your manager doesn't spell out the rules initially, bring up the subject before you log on to your Facebook page (though you should probably save this question for some time after your first day on the job).

*Stay professional.

Even if it's OK for you to instant message or listen to your iPod, do so with discretion and stay professional.

Remember that your employer can gain access to e-mails and instant messages you send over company computers. And managers certainly will notice if you spend more time listening to tunes than getting your work done.

As a representative for Bank of America put it: "The company does allow a reasonable amount of appropriate personal use of company resources by associates ... but the use of company resources is a privilege and not to be abused." If you find yourself too distracted by IMs from friends, schedule specific times - perhaps during your lunch - when you can log on and catch up. Then, turn off the device for the rest of the day.

*Don't download.

In addition to limiting your use of personal technology, avoid downloading software, music, movies or any other programs to your computer.

These files may carry viruses that could wreak havoc on your company's IT system or put sensitive corporate information at risk.

"Downloads can get you into the most trouble," Erwin said.

And if your employer has an internal system for instant messaging or online networking, that doesn't mean it's acceptable for you to download other versions.

Besides, your employer may restrict access to those sites.

Employees at advanced-technology company Lockheed Martin, for example, can't connect to social networking sites, including Facebook and MySpace, according to a company representative. The same goes for personal e-mail providers and instant messaging services.

Carolyn Bigda writes for Tribune Media Services.

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