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The Great PC Giveaway

August 1, 2000
Related Topics: Technology and the Law, Benefit Design and Communication, Featured Article, Technology
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Ifyou’ve tuned into the news over the last few months, you’ve probably noticed aninteresting trend in employee relations. One company after another -- Delta Air Lines,Ford Motor Company and American Airlines, to name a few -- has decided to plunk down cold,hard cash to subsidize and even buy personal computers for employees to use at home.

Dothe basic math and it’s clear that companies are sometimes spending millions ofdollars. Even a deeply discounted PC and cut-rate Internet service can fall into thegeneral neighborhood of $500 or more per employee per year. Not exactly pocket change in acorporate world where penny pinching has become nothing less than a science.

Yet,this nascent trend makes business sense. Increasingly, organizations are realizing thatequipping employees with PCs isn’t about cost, it’s about value.

“It’sbecoming clear that as we move into the Information Age, it’s essential to haveemployees who are conversant with technology and able to engage in knowledge sharing,”says Paul Platten, national director of strategic rewards at Watson Wyatt Worldwide.“As people surf the Web, conduct research, and make purchases online, they are ableto transfer the skills to the workplace.”

Theemergence of HR portals means that workers can access personnel records, pay and benefitsinformation, and other company material from home, anytime they like. Not only does thesituation provide greater convenience for employees, but it also allows employers tofurther automate processes, cut costs, and reduce administrative overhead.

Plattenbelieves that it will also soon provide a way for companies to rake in additional revenue,as outside firms buy advertising. “It’s possible to provide highly targeted adsfor insurance, schools, healthcare, and more. In some cases, the ads could be targeted tolife events, like a birthday or having a child.”

Theidea is to “enhance” workers’ technical skills and create bettercommunication links.

Establishinga viable program involves more than just tossing PCs at employees. As many firms arebeginning to realize, equipping workers with systems raises enough legal, ethical andpractical issues to make an HR manager’s head spin faster than a hard drive. And,more often than not, it’s up to the human resources department to build the frameworkfor a program through policies, procedures, rules, and education.

Ifyou think your company is immune to this trend, think again. As major employers adoptPC-to-employee programs, other companies feel the heat to keep up. And if they don’tprovide systems outright, they’re at least looking to assist workers who want topurchase them. A 1999 study conducted by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM)found that 18 percent of employers offer employees financial incentives to purchase acomputer, and many others are looking to jump on the computer bandwagon.

Onecompany racing toward a wired workforce is Delta Air Lines, the third largest U.S.carrier. This year, it began offering its 75,000 employees low-cost computers and onlineaccess in conjunction with San Francisco-based PeoplePC Inc. Workers pay $12 per month for36 months for a system with a Hewlett-Packard 533-megahertz Celeron system with monitor,keyboard, mouse, speakers, 24x7 technical support, and access to the Internet. It’spossible for employees to upgrade to a more expensive model, including a notebook PC, andthose who already have a PC and don’t care to receive a new one can get free Internetaccess instead.

Theidea is to “enhance” workers’ technical skills and create bettercommunication links, says Delta spokesperson Katie Connell. For example, the airline cansend e-mail to pilots, flight attendants, and other workers. More importantly, whenemployees log on to their computers, they’re automatically directed to the firm’sintranet site, DeltaNet, which offers company news, benefits information, retirementaccount balances, and more.

“Asa company, we already interface with many of our customers and shareholders online. Thisnew program will give Delta employees that same ability to connect to company information-- including home access to DeltaNet -- whenever they find it convenient or desirable,”says Leo F. Mullin, chairman, president and chief executive officer for Delta Airlines.Connell predicts that as many as 50,000 workers will participate in the program over thenext three years.

Anotherfirm that is sold on the idea is Ford Motor Company, which announced its own program inFebruary 2000. At that time, Bill Ford, the firm’s chairman, announced that 350,000workers worldwide would be eligible for a Hewlett-Packard PC, complete with a colorprinter and unlimited Internet access for $5 per month. “The Internet is theequivalent of the moving assembly line of the 21st century. Individuals and companies thatwant to be successful...will need to be leaders in using the Internet and relatedtechnologies,” he says.

Ford’sgoal? “To accelerate the development” of computer-related skills. In fact, byboosting employees’ competence and Internet savvy, the company figures that it willultimately be better prepared to compete in an increasingly challenging globalenvironment. In other words, the return on investment is substantial enough to justify aPC in every worker’s home. Best of all, workers, human resources, and the enterpriseall come out ahead when a program is properly designed and administered.

Notethe key words: properly designed and administered. And that’s where human resourcesenters into the equation. If you’re considering plugging in your personnel, it’sa good idea to ensure that you have all the critical pieces in place. That means providingemployees with boundaries, limits, and expectations so that they do not feel compelled totackle ever-increasing amounts of work at home. It also means educating them on the legal,security, privacy, and liability issues that can extend into the home.

Already,a smattering of lawsuits have arisen as a result of employees using employer-providedpersonal computers. In one case, an employee writing a novel on personal time sued afterthe manuscript was deleted during an upgrade performed by the firm. Likewise, unless acompany provides a clearly defined policy about what happens to the PC and its contentswhen a worker leaves the firm, a huge disagreement can arise.

Liabilityalso can enter into the picture. Over the last two decades, courts have repeatedly heldemployers responsible for the actions of workers. If an individual uses anemployer-provided home PC to engage in harassment, hacking, or any other criminalactivity, there’s a good chance that it could result in some level of liability, saysPlatten. The same logic could apply to a repetitive stress injury, which an employee couldclaim is a result of using the company-provided PC.

Obviously,it’s a good idea if HR is involved in the process from the beginning.

Securityis another prickly issue. It’s no bulletin that any employee who accesses an intranetfrom a home computer has on it sensitive and potentially damaging data, includingpasswords and PIN numbers.

Untilrecently, however, intranet use was confined to sophisticated users. Ratchet up PCownership and push systems throughout an entire employee base and the potential headachescan multiply. A newbie user could eventually sell the PC and inadvertently leave importantdata on the system. A teenage family member might use the system to try to break into theintranet. And if the system lacks adequate protection, such as a firewall, it could becomea tool for an outside hacker, who might use it to wreak havoc on an intranet or on theInternet.

Andthen there’s privacy. If an employee  storesmedical records, banking and tax information, and other highly personal data on a PC, it’spossible that it could be compromised during a company upgrade. What if there’s alawsuit and an employee is asked or required to turn over a hard drive for evidence? Whosehard drive is it, anyway? And what information will the company make available toadvertisers and third parties? These are all touchy subjects.

Finally,there’s the issue of work and personal life becoming increasingly blurred. Ifemployees, particularly those in the non-exempt category, find themselves cajoled orforced into contributing additional hours and aren’t paid, it’s a violation ofthe Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Ray Cordelli, former director of the U.S. Departmentof Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, has described such benefits as employee-PCprograms as stretching the FLSA to the “nth” degree. In a recent article in theInstitute of Management and Administration’s  ManagingHR Information Systems newsletter, Cordelli asked: “The key issue is: why is thecompany giving the computer to the employees?”

Obviously,it’s a good idea if HR is involved in the process from the beginning, surveyingworkers to determine interest, handling record keeping and logistics for the program,monitoring compliance with federal laws, and overseeing training and education. In fact,when all the pieces come together, a company can find itself on the fast track to success.It can build a wired workforce that’s thoroughly prepared for today’se-everything world.

Workforce,August 2000, Vol. 79, No. 8, pp. 18-20-- Subscribenow!

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