The All-Seeing Employer

An overseer of remote employees stops by their virtual cubicles every few minutes

PHOTO: Frederic Cirou/Getty Images

At first glance, oDesk, a site that helps employers hire, manage, and pay online contractors, looked like just another marketplace to Web developer Jason Cartwright. So when a former colleague booked him to work on a few projects already managed through oDesk, Cartwright agreed.

There turned out to be one catch: oDesk’s electronic monitoring feature, which takes computer screen shots randomly six times an hour. If you’re reading personal e-mails or watching YouTube on billed time, your employer will find out. ”As I’m an independent developer, it was very invasive at first,” Cartwright says. But he quickly got used to the screen shots and saw the flip side. ”I like the accountability. Knowing that I was being monitored forced me to reduce distractions and stay focused.”

He’s not alone in not seeming to mind. Some 100 000 Web developers, programmers, graphic designers, writers, and other contractors, most of them working outside the United States, have put their profiles on oDesk since the company was launched in Menlo Park, Calif., in 2004. But not everyone thinks the electronic monitoring is ethical. Critics have called the feature ”Big Brotherism” and even a form of slavery.

But all work requires accountability. When output is hard to measure, you pay by input, which is why lawyers, French tutors, and physical therapists charge by the hour. When output is measurable, you pay by the job, so writers bill by the published word and house painters by the square foot. The point of oDesk is to make both options available.

Gary Swart, the CEO of oDesk, argues that when small businesses hire independent contractors for quick-turnaround projects, his service can benefit both parties. Employers know that their work is getting done and that they are not being overcharged, and contractors rest assured that they’ll be paid for their time and effort.

Swart says that oDesk tries to make remote work and outsourcing more effective by emulating the real world. Contractors log into a ”team room,” which punches them in on an Internet ”time clock.” oDesk then tracks the time and bills for it, taking care of currency conversions and international payments.

Contractors do have some control over what gets sent to their bosses. They can edit their work logs, add time spent working while not logged in, and delete any screen shots they choose, forfeiting payment for that time.

Swart says that having a member of a work team virtually walk by your cubicle is a small inconvenience for what you get in return: guaranteed payment. ”You don’t want to send an invoice a month from now and have the employer question that you really worked 60 hours last week,” he says. ”And you don’t want to chase after your money.”

But there are better ways to build trust, says Peter Weddle, an HR consultant and former CEO of Job Bank USA. He likens having your screen monitored to ”sitting in your office and every single moment of every single day there is an eye up in the corner watching you.” When a buyer and seller first start working together, there is value to electronic monitoring to build trust between the two parties. ”But after some period of time,” says Weddle, ”there is no need for those kinds of technological handcuffs.”

Employers who have used oDesk disagree. Start-up developer Jan Zands hired two software firms in India through oDesk to develop an online software tool for managing phone messages. He says that employers have a right to know how billed time is being spent. ”If you’re hiring somebody from all the way across the world and they’re billing you by the hour, it’s really nice to be able to confirm that they’re working during that time,” he says.

In fact, Zands argues that monitoring via screen shots can be less intrusive than a nosy boss who calls and checks in periodically. ”Developers are creative people, and sometimes their creative flow can be interrupted by constantly asking for updates.”

About the Author

PRACHI PATEL-PREDD, a frequent contributor to Spectrum , wrote two pieces for this month’s issue. For Careers, she wrote about oDesk [p. 23], a company that manages contract employees by monitoring their computer activity, ensuring that the employer won’t be billed for time spent on Facebook or YouTube. A freelancer herself, Patel-Predd thinks it’s not a bad idea. ”I would use it,” she says. Her story in Update, ” The Trouble With Touch Screens” [p. 11], explores the search for new transparent conductors, a problem that’s literally at your fingertips.

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