The tech employees who have to muzzle their dogs and their bowels

Some tech companies are now monitoring literally every movement home-office employees make.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

The whole delightful, lovely thing about technology is that it knows no boundaries. The whole mean, portentous thing about technology is that it knows no boundaries. Freelance home-office workers used to enjoy only the delights. Now they are not so sure.

The Wall Street Journal slapped me about the chops this morning by unveiling the magical ingenuity of companies such as oDesk.com.

ODesk's website promises that you can "hire, manage and pay contractors as if they were in your office."

And how does oDesk recreate the spirit of office joy in the homes of freelance workers?

Well, they take photos of the freelancers' computer screens. Six times an hour. They record mouse clicks and keystrokes. They take photographs of the freelancers themselves, noting, should they wish to, their sniffs, squints and nose-picking habits.

What is so dainty about this system is that clients can log in to watch the freelancers hoover their nostrils in real time.

There will be those who will say, quite understandably, that if these workers were in the office, then their manager could walk around and check just how often they watch YouTube, scrape words together on Scrabulous and pick at facial detritus.

But please forgive me if I confess that this high-tech shackling sends somewhat uncomfortable signals through my dorsal regions.


As it does with at least one of oDesk's competitors, Elance.com.

Elance would rather the freelancers monitored their own activity, relying on that somewhat quaint concept called honesty.

Yet perhaps the most joyous attitude comes from Arise.com, a company whose homepage proclaims the registered mantra: 'Work. Freedom. Trust. Results.'

Here's some more of Arise's own words:

"Arise has set the standard providing thousands of home based businesses with the freedom to answer calls, e-mail and chat requests for prestigious U.S. and global companies."

Now, let's just focus on that freedom standard for a moment.

Arise's workers have to schedule time to go to the bathroom. Specific time when their bodies will perform their necessary functions. Time that would be described as free time. As in unpaid.

I am not sure if the company employs any workers who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome or ulcerative colitis. But perhaps those workers might not be amongst the richest of their contractors.

Other companies that outsource call-centers are also developing technology that allows them to instantly interrupt any client calls, when, for example, a child or a dog makes the entirely immature and insensitive choice of crying or barking.

Would it be immature and insensitive to suggest that these companies, so beloved of the income new technology brings, might offer their employees a little plug-in that masks the real noises coming from the house?

I am sure that a really, really clever company such as Slydial will already have created such a useful tool. (Some telephonic genii are already in possession of technology that allows your cellphone call to sound like it's coming from a busy street, so that you can fake the reason you're late for a meeting.)

However, if this long-tentacled monitoring is to become the price that home-based workers must pay, might I offer a couple of suggestions in the interests of freedom and trustworthiness?

I notice, for example, on oDesk's site, that there doesn't appear to be a livecam monitoring the movements of Chief Executive, Gary Swart. Shouldn't there be? Shouldn't clients be sure that the person who, presumably, takes a healthy chunk of profit share, is productive at all times? Even should he be forced, for business reasons naturally, to play golf?

I also failed to find anything on Arise's site to detail CEO Angela Selden's bathroom breaks. Shouldn't we know how many she takes, when, and how much time she expends in doing, um, her business? Might that not be a positive gesture to create solidarity with your contractors? It would also be good for clients, giving them clearly defined times when a call to the CEO would not be appropriate.

With the sorts of corporate principles espoused by these companies, wouldn't it be a nice idea if clients were told what the CEOs are doing on their dime as well as their contractors?

Or does the idea of 'Work. Freedom. Trust. Results' have its limits?