A guest post by Greg Minton
I was on the phone with a new client, and I couldn’t believe my luck. This software entrepreneur was clearly excited about working with me. He loved my style and indicated that our working relationship would be a long-term one. He was happy with my rate and excited about the suggestions I was making for his landing page.
But there was a problem.
He wanted to work through oDesk.
oDesk is an online bidding site similar to Elance. What sets oDesk apart is its time tracking software. This software doesn’t just track time. It also takes periodic screenshots of the freelancer’s screen, snaps webcam pictures of the freelancer, and keeps track of the freelancer’s typing rate.
I grudgingly agreed, since I had really enjoyed my interactions with this client so far.
My oDesk Experience
My client wasn’t worried about my work habits; he only wanted to work through oDesk because his marketing budget was in the oDesk escrow system. To get paid, I still had to work through the oDesk software, so I loaded up the software and started writing. He and I agreed on a set rate for the project, so we agreed that I’d just stop the clock when it reached that rate.
The first few times it took pictures and screenshots, I felt annoyed and noticed a shift in my behavior; I felt less relaxed than I usually do as I write. For example, I felt tense about shifting over to iTunes to skip a song or opening my calendar to double check an appointment.
This kind of tension while doing creative work is never a good thing.
The last straw was when I received an e-mail, switched over to check it, and started to read an e-mail from another client. At that moment, the screen flickered, indicating that oDesk was taking a screenshot. While this e-mail contained no sensitive information, the very idea that sensitive client information could potentially be compromised through oDesk was unacceptable to me.
The Fundamental Problem With oDesk
My situation with oDesk was fairly innocuous. I called my client to renegotiate a different payment method, and things worked out.
However, I learned from the oDesk experience and gleaned some potentially useful principles for both creative professionals and clients.
oDesk’s time tracking and monitoring software is increasing in popularity with clients, and this is not occurring in a vacuum. I see oDesk’s growing popularity (and its mere existence) as an effect of particular client paradigm, not the sole or primary cause.
- 1. oDesk implies a lack of trust.
Clients who insist on monitoring their freelancers’ work behavior send a very clear message to the freelance professional: “I don’t trust you.”
Why else would they want to watch their freelancers’ computer screens, treating them as though they are eight years old?
Successful business relationships are built at the relationship level, not at the contractual level. Yes, there is a necessary element of self-protection involved in any contractual relationship.
However, if a client-contractor relationship starts off from the standpoint of “I’m not so sure you’re going to do the work, so I’m going to stand over your back,” then the freelancer will have no reason to reciprocate trust.
- 2. oDesk ignores how freelancers actually work.
Freelance writers are creative professionals. We’re not producing widgets. I can understand a manager’s desire to supervise an assembly line of factory workers. Freelancers work differently, though. We need creative flow, and monitoring software just doesn’t allow this flow when it takes a picture every five minutes.
As another example of oDesk ignoring how freelancers work, I organize large projects with notecards. I lay them out on my desk and organize the flow of the piece. This is clearly billable time, as it is time solely devoted to the client’s project. In this scenario, oDesk would snap pictures of iTunes and would show no keyboard typing.
oDesk ignores that there’s more to writing than typing into a Word document – most projects involve planning, preparation, and research.
- 3. oDesk can potentially harm confidential business relationships.
Most freelancers don’t just have one client. As of the time of writing this article, I have about six active projects, and two more in the pipeline. Sometimes, I open an e-mail from one client as I work on another clients’ project. What happens if oDesk snaps a picture of confidential business information? I absolutely refuse to compromise my clients’ confidential information for the sake of an untrusting client.
- The issue isn’t fundamentally about oDesk. It’s about the way that clients view their freelancers – and how freelancers view themselves. oDesk’s rise in popularity is alarming, as it is an indication of an ever-increasing lack of trust towards freelance writers.
- My plea to clients is this: If you don’t trust your freelance writer, ask for references. If you still don’t trust him, don’t hire him. Foster a relationship of trust from the very beginning, and you won’t have to keep tabs on your freelance writer.