Hey, Home-based Worker, Someone Is Watching You -- and It's Your Boss

Ann All

In my half-dozen years as a telecommuter, I've found widely varying managerial attitudes toward the practice. I go to great pains to tell my current manager when I'll be out running errands at lunch time, information I don't feel compelled to share when I work at the office. Though I suspect she doesn't give a hoot -- and she's said as much -- I find the disclosure habit a hard one to break because a former manager wanted me to check in frequently if I worked at home.

 

To be fair, no one at my previous job used instant messaging, which makes it much easier to stay in essentially constant contact with co-workers whether or not you're in the same building. But that former boss also had a tendency to micro-manage. Several of us papered our work spaces in Dilbert cartoons in a lame and mild form of protest; he either didn't notice or (more likely) didn't care.

 

With hefty fuel prices leading to an increased interest in telecommuting, more managers will need to come to terms with any mixed feelings they have about it. In the positive column for employers: reduced real-estate costs, a more flexible workforce, improved disaster-recovery capabilities, and happier and hopefully more productive employees.

 

In the negative column: security concerns, possible negative impacts on coworker relationships, and a lingering suspicion that some employees may indulge a daytime TV habit instead of working.

 

Indeed, the latter concern is relevant. Check out what our self-described "crotchety manager" Ken-Hardin wrote about telecommuting earlier this summer:

... telecommuting is not for everybody. If it were, companies would not be recoiling from it, despite workers' and staffing companies' contentions that telecommuting makes everybody more productive. Companies like productivity. As much as I like telecommuting for my teams, I can't do it myself, beyond an hour or so in the evening just to catch up. The great joys/banes of my existence -- my TV and my fridge -- are at my house. I have to get away.

In my experience, folks who have trouble staying on task at home generally realize it (like Ken) and just report to the office where they can focus. But that may not be possible for everyone. Some companies prefer to hire home-based contact center agents, and freelancers generally work from home (unless they have access to a shared workspace).

 

No worries. According to Wall Street Journal columnist Sue Shellenbarger, companies are "stepping up electronic monitoring and oversight of tens of thousands of home-based independent contractors," utilizing technologies that count computer keystrokes, collect screen shots and sometimes snap photos of workers at their keyboards.

 

One such system at oDesk.com, a professional network of 90,000 computer programmers, network admins, graphic designers, writers and others, takes random snapshots of workers' computer screens six times an hour, records keystrokes and mouse clicks and can produce optional photos of freelancers at work. Workers see a small icon at the bottom of their screens each time a screen shot is taken. Clients can log into the system and see whether contractors are working, what they're doing and how long it's taking them. Says the company's CEO:

You can't play Blackjack. You can't watch YouTube. Why? Because I'm watching you work.

Not surprisingly, some folks find this kind of system a little too Orwellian for their tastes. Peter Weddle, a consultant, author and researcher on employment Web sites, tells Shellenbarger that work-at-home professionals "don't need someone looking over their shoulders."

 

The column also mentions Arise.com, a company that routes calls to its 8,000 home-based agents constantly and suggests the workers schedule a half-hour off the clock for bathroom breaks a few times throughout the day. Working Solutions uses sophisticated speech analytics technology to detect barking dogs, wailing babies and other unwelcome background noise on its home-based agents' calls.

 

Many companies reject keystroke monitoring, screen shots and photos as too intrusive for keeping tabs on their own home-based workers, writes Shellenbarger. But as more employees stay home, use of electronic monitoring technologies may become more common. And, Shellenbarger writes, "the home office, long regarded as a calmer place to work, may evolve into just another office, fraught with the same constraints as a corporate cubicle."

 

Perhaps the best advice, again from crotchety Ken-Hardin, is to establish expectations up-front with telecommuting employees. His rule of thumb: Assuming they have the same responsibilities, a telecommuting employee's schedule should be no more flexible than an in-office's employee's schedule.



Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Aug 18, 2008 6:33 AM Brian Goler Brian Goler  says:
Hi Ann,Thanks for mentioning oDesk. The topic of worker monitoring does seem to elicit strong responses. After reading your post and some of the stories you link to, one might be wondering why nearly 100k professionals offer their services through oDesk. Consider the following:1. oDesk guarantees payment for hourly work that is logged through our system. This guarantee frees the professional from the burden of chasing slow-paying clients, of vetting the credit-worthiness of clients located anywhere in the world, or of generating invoices. We remove all the risk.2. oDesk pros control what information is shared with their clients. The professional signs-in to our time tracking application - oDesk Team - to activate it. Once activated, oDesk Team can be set to notify the user each and every time information is about to be transmitted to oDesk servers. The user can discard the info before it is uploaded if they feel that it includes information they don't want to share. Workers can also delete info after it is uploaded to oDesk if they decide later that they don't want to share it with their client. This short video provides a good demo - https://url.odesk.com/tu91i3. oDesk supports invoicing of clients for time that is not automatically tracked by oDesk Team. We call it "offline time." One of the trade-offs is that the provider is not guaranteed payment for that time. We find that the transparency provided by oDesk Team builds trust, puts *upward* pressure on hourly rates, and fosters long-term relationships.Thanks.Brian GoleroDesk - http://www.odesk.com Reply

Post a comment

 

 

 

 


(Maximum characters: 1200). You have 1200 characters left.

 

null
null

 

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Sign up now and get the best business technology insights direct to your inbox.