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Page last updated at 16:15 GMT, Friday, 28 November 2008

Home work being closely watched

By Ian Hardy
Reporter, BBC Click

Debby Baksh
Debby Baksh likes to have her hard work monitored
With the global economy slowing down and office space being sold off, workers are facing more pressure to hold on to their jobs.

The latest tracking technology means that even those working from home are equally under the spotlight as their activities are monitored remotely.

Debby Baksh is one of thousands of customer sales agents hired and trained online by US firm Arise to answer calls at home.

In her Brooklyn living room, she supplies phone services to some of the biggest companies in America and around the world.

Close look

She is allowed to answer six calls an hour and must try to make these last six minutes or more.

"So they want to make sure you're doing your job and selling a lot," said Ms Baksh. "Once your calls are over six minutes they know that you're being very productive, that you're selling the items for them."

Her conversations with customers are recorded and analysed by her bosses, and her performance is monitored constantly by software on her computer.

If she steps away for any reason without logging off, the machine will know about it - but Ms Baksh likes it because it shows she is hard at work.

Her 100% track record ensure she has first choice of working hours, while also receiving a steady stream of high-quality customers likely to buy.

Arise spokesman John Riordan said calls were routed to staff based on their skills and earlier performance.

"We also have the ability to match customer demographics with agent demographics, because after all, we all like to buy products and be serviced by people like ourselves," he said.

But telephone tracking technology has its critics. They point out that remote workers should be aware that getting sacked is only one click away, as most systems are set up to ensure they never have legal status as an employee.

Screen shots

To keep an eye on arms-length employees one customer service company claims to have software capable of detecting an angry agent or even a baby crying in the same room - a definite no-no in the home sales world.

Tim Lytle
Tim Lytle said he gets plenty of work to do at home

Tim Lytle works from home too, but in his line of work, crying babies in the background are not a problem.

He writes computer code from his house in a small town in Pennsylvania, where rent and food are much cheaper than in a big city.

He finds work from listings on oDesk.com where potential projects are plentiful.

"If I wanted to do more work on oDesk I'm sure I could bid the jobs and get them," said Mr Lytle.

The website allows home-based workers, known as providers, to bid on design and technical projects offered by clients.

Mike Katz is a client who owns an e-mail retention business called Messagepartners.com, and through oDesk he can constantly monitor a team of providers.

If there is not a steady stream of mouse movements or keyboard strikes from the machine of a team member, the worker stops accumulating paid minutes.

Plus, six times an hour a screen shot from the providers' computers is sent to the client.

"You waste a lot of time talking, sometimes. Especially for developers, it's a task that requires lots of concentration," explained Mr Katz. "Interrupting someone to ask what they're doing can sometimes take 20 minutes. Here I look at the screen and I see what they're doing and that's it".

No legal status

In return for a 10% cut, oDesk takes care of every aspect of the relationship from invoicing to international payments, and intellectual property rights to taxes.

This makes it easier for companies to hire workers across borders, while providers from almost any country can to sign up, set their own hourly rate and start bidding for work.

Gary Swart, the boss of oDesk, said there were 160 different tests on technology, writing and phone skills that providers can take free of charge.

"We ask you to do that so you can differentiate yourself from the 130,000 other providers in our network. And then apply to jobs as you see fit," he said.

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