Who is it really helping in the long run?
If you’ve ever gotten a response to a bid on a freelancing site like Upwork, you’re probably familiar with the concept of time-tracking. You install a software on your computer and it keeps track of what you do and how long it takes you. It’s a simple concept that helps you keep track of your productivity. Time-tracking has evolved quite a bit though since it was first introduced and today it’s not generally defined. In fact, there are many different types of time tracking that exist for different reasons, in different forms.
How it all started
The original time-tracking solutions that kick started the trend were essentially glorified calendars. They offered users basic functionality for the documentation of effort, over a given period of time. You would start work at 9am and sometime after noon you would make a note that you spent two and a half hours at a particular task, estimating that a good thirty minutes were lost in breaks and procrastination. To be fair, one could easily track their time in this manner on a sticky note.
Then came the proliferation of the global freelance market, and time-tracking started to evolve in different directions. First came the software upgrade to the tried and true method of writing things down – We got time tracking software that lingered in the corner of our screens, asking for regular notes on what we were doing. In addition, said software came with functionality that allowed our employers to easily access our schedule. This made it easy for freelancers to judge their own productivity, and employers to know that their money is well spent.
A new branch of time tracking went in a completely different direction, with a lot more programming, but a lot less overhead – These new time tracking apps came with automated scanning of active PC windows, tracking your exact activity down to the second, then giving you a nice spreadsheet at the end of the day. This allowed users to know exactly how many minutes they’ve spent on social media, every hour, in between maximizing and minimizing their actual workstation.
This was roughly the time when major clients saw room for improvement, in their favor. They figured they could merge the two concepts, into one large automated network. The freelancers would work, carefree, at their own pace. Their clients would be able to see exactly what they were doing and how long it took. Again, in concept, this is all cut and dry. But there were two major implications that went by unchecked, and caused quite a stir among the online freelancing community.
First, many time tracking applications of this sort actually capture the screen of the freelancer, throughout the work day. This means that if you’re working a 9 to 5 shift, your employer will be able to see, and re-watch at their leisure, everything you did on your computer in that time frame. This is an egregious invasion of privacy.
The second issue falls under the general consensus on what constitutes labor. If you’re working a desk job at an office, you get paid an hourly rate, per 8 hours that you spend in the office. However, you could spend roughly 20 minutes in the bathroom, 20 at lunch and another 20 loitering around the water cooler, during any given day. Your employer wouldn’t bill you for that lost hour. You’d still get paid for 8 hours of honest labor.
You don’t get that level of fairness with time-tracking. With these extremely meticulous time tracking solutions, every second is metered separately. That means that there are no paid breaks, sneezes, scratches, or distractions. You only get paid for the exact seconds that you spent working.
This concept isn’t necessarily controversial. The problem is that in the real world, there are certain financial standards that are generally consensual, and that we all prescribe to. However, the real world doesn’t come with time tracking. This means that if you’re working minimum wage in real life, then convert to the same job remotely with time tracking, you’ll actually be earning less. – That is, you will no longer be paid for the time you spend away from your workstation.
Difference of opinion
The underlined issue here clearly has to do with standardization. Clients have a different understanding of labor than the freelancers they employ. The capitalist standard is that one pays for a product, and a producer delivers. Time-tracking completely circumvents this tenet, operating instead under the notion that clients pay for labor-hours.
It’s also worth noting that certain fields of work like live teaching and tech support seem to align with the time tracking model quite well. Once you factor in proper compensation and you and your employer come to a consensus, you should be fine. But consider the ethical implications of using time tracking with professions such as content writing or art production. If an artist is commissioned to draw a certain amount of logos, does it matter at all whether it took 12 hours or 10? Should it in any way factor into how much that artist is paid? The same case can be made for content writing – where the amount of content written seems to be far more important than the time it took to write the content.
The mere existence of time tracking seems to encourage freelancers to work slower, rather than faster. That way, they earn a lot more money with a lot less effort. Further, if you’re just starting a contract with a new client, you wouldn’t want to finish a task quickly and efficiently, as that would encourage the client to give you even more work, at the same rate, when you could just as easily have stretched out one task to fill the time of many.
As for the utility of time tracking for the actual freelancer, yes, it is very worthwhile to know exactly how you spend your time and why. It is also really useful to be able to pinpoint distractions, to better understand your own pacing and work habits. At the end of the day, however, we would advise that you take caution when considering freelance contracts that necessitate time-tracking. Don’t jump into a position that would jeopardize or demoralize you down the line. Consider the ethical implications of being timed for your work and decide for yourself whether it is a worthwhile endeavor.
Periodix is a service that helps freelancers win jobs faster.