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


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.