oDesk - Escrow Services, Work Tracking Systems and Payment Guarantees
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oDesk is a study in contrasts in terms of how it supports hourly and fixed rate projects. The company provides a full suite of software tools, policies and services to manage hourly jobs, and backs this up with a payment guarantee for those who meet the requirements. But it provides absolutely no support whatsoever for fixed rate projects, leaving clients and contractors who use them entirely to fend for themselves.
As I’ve mentioned throughout my review of oDesk in this Guide, the company has set up its entire operation to cater specifically to clients who want to hire contractors on an hourly basis. It includes an extensive suite of tools to support the process of employers hiring, managing and paying hourly workers. This system is quite complex, and most of the features are really only of relevance to employers, so describing it in full detail is really beyond the scope of this Guide. I’ll try to cover the basics, though, so you have a general idea of how it works from the standpoint of a contractor.
When you apply and are hired for an hourly job, oDesk sets up a work diary for the project. This is a “command center” of sorts where the employer keeps track of the work being done for the project. He or she can view time here that you’ve logged to the project, and perform other necessary project management functions. The work diary is designed to help clients who may have several projects going at once, and could also be working with many different contractors on each.
The work diary is fed information from oDesk’s Team application. This is a piece of software that you download and install on your computer, with versions available for Windows PCs, Macs and machines running Linux as well. The application includes a number of functions, but the key one is that it allows you to track how much time you spend on a project. You can select the project you’re currently working on, and it will start keeping track of the time until you tell it you are done working. It also keeps track of how many keystrokes you make during the time you are working (though not what they are), and periodically takes screenshots. All of this information is sent at regular intervals to the work diary for the client to review. The Team application also includes support tools, such as a memo feature to allow communication among the team, and the ability to take and share webcam pictures, if appropriate.
The Team application is very important to oDesk’s notion of enabling a virtual workspace. The company promotes the use of the tool to clients as a way to reduce the risk associated with hiring workers over the Internet, especially ones working overseas. Through the application, clients get a certain level of proof that the workers are in fact doing what they’re being paid for. oDesk sells contractors on the use of this application through tools such as those mentioned above, and the fact that billing and payment is accomplished automatically without the need for constant invoicing. The company also makes the Team application the cornerstone of the company’s payment guarantee, as we’ll see shortly.
Of course, many freelancers aren’t sold—there are a number of objections to the Team application and the system surrounding it. Most of these are, of course, directly related to the monitoring aspects of the software, which has in the past been likened to “Big Brother”, referred to as “spyware”, and so forth. Frankly, these claims are hard to argue with: by using this software, you are agreeing to have your behavior monitored and recorded, something that many freelancers have a big problem with. Heck, a lot of employees even in full-time jobs would take issue with this level of micromanagement.
Other concerns relate to confidentiality, especially in situations where someone is working on more than one project at a time. What happens if you forget to turn off the application when you switch to another type of work, and a screenshot of client A’s work gets sent to client B? This is a big issue for certain types of projects.
Finally, there is the matter of how accurately this type of system really measures work performed. Okay, if you are hiring someone to enter data or do similar work, it makes sense. But when I see graphic designers being paid using this system, I really have to wonder: doesn’t the time spent coming up with ideas matter too? oDesk does have a way to enter “offline” time to cover these situations, but as we’ll see soon, contractors have no way of ensuring they get paid for this time.
The use of the oDesk Team application is optional on hourly projects, however, not using it means that the work guarantee doesn’t apply, and there are other problems too. First, given how often it is used, simply telling a client that you don’t want to use the application means you’re probably reducing your chances of getting work. And second, trying to get paid on an hourly project via “offline time” is so confusing that many people can’t even figure out how to do it. More on that when I get into interfaces and usability.
All of those concerns aside, I can see why oDesk developed this system: as detestable as I find it on a personal level, it makes sense for a company with oDesk’s business model. Even though oDesk’s Team application is similar in many ways to Elance’s Work View, I find Elance’s promotion of this system more objectionable specifically because Elance claims that it caters to a higher-end of the freelancing marketplace, where it should expect contractors to rightly object to intrusive monitoring and reporting.
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