Technology

Focusmate: Watched over while I worked from home

Stephen Beckett at work
Image caption TV reporter Stephen Beckett is used to being watched by strangers - but not at home

It's 08:00 GMT and I'm sitting silently in my lounge while a stranger watches me via my webcam.

I can see them too. In fact we've both agreed to spend the next 50 minutes spying on each other without saying a word.

We've never met before, but Jasmin - not her real name - and I have something in common: we're both trying to resist the many temptations of working from home and finally get some work done.

Our work date has been arranged by Focusmate - a new website that promises to stop you procrastinating by having another human hold you to account, just like your co-workers might in a real office.

Every session starts with you each explaining what you're trying to achieve.

Jasmin is working on the next chapter of her book, and I'm catching up on my emails.

Everything about the interaction has been designed to make us both feel the pressure to work.

Fifty minutes of quiet tapping later, Jasmin and I say our goodbyes.

My next session with Focusmate founder Taylor Jacobson is a bit more chatty.

"Thinking the idea is a bit weird is a common initial reaction, but this is not big brother," he says.

"It's all opt in. It's all people who are genuinely interested in doing their most important work and they want to be held accountable for that."

Image copyright Focusmate
Image caption Focusmate sells itself on the idea that we work better when monitored by someone else

Strictly speaking, Mr Jacobson and I shouldn't really be talking at all.

"Work quietly on the task you've declared," states the site's rulebook. "Focusmate is a professional community, not a social or dating site."

Don't vent

Respecting your work partner by being on time to your booking, working studiously and not wandering off mid-call are other commitments you're expected to make.

You can also report any bad behaviour you encounter, should your work day should take a turn for the unexpected.

"Willpower basically doesn't work," says Mr Jacobson.

"Even if your willpower is amazing, completely off the charts, in the modern world you're still contending with more distractions than you're built to handle."

According to the chief executive, Focusmate is founded on science. Telling someone precisely what you plan to do, subjecting yourself to social pressure and being held to account are all ingredients required to reach a "flow state".

Image caption Peer pressure is intended to prevent users slacking off for too long

"For me, the key element of this idea is making a commitment to somebody else," says Prof Philip Asherson, a psychiatry expert at King's College London.

"Doing that has the potential to imbue more meaning into what you're doing.

"It's partly giving you a reward that this other person is there to validate what you have done, plus the added social pressure from the implementation and planning."

The key factor, he adds, is the commitment you make to another person.

"Enhancing the salience of an activity is known to enhance attentional networks in the brain, that improve sustained attention and performance.

"Without empirical study, however, it's hard to say how well this would work for everyone."

Virtual co-workers

Nausheen is writing his dissertation, Elons is editing a YouTube video and Rachel is sorting out her finances.

There's a real mix of people on Focusmate, and the ones I've met in my few days on the site have all been impeccable co-workers.

But you wouldn't be alone in finding the whole idea a bit odd.

Project manager Ben Whitelaw has been using Focusmate for several months.

"There's been a lawyer in Germany who's been studying for her exams, I met a guy from Romania who's trying to learn a language and then I met a guy from California who spent about 25 minutes stretching in front of the camera," he recalls.

"You can hear people moving around in the background, or you can maybe catch a glimpse of them if they're working at the desk.

"It gives you a sense that there is this agreement that you've concocted yourselves."

Image caption You can check out others before committing to adding a session to your diary

Remote working and telecommuting are on the rise in many countries. Studies have shown a range of benefits from cutting down on vehicle emissions to saving companies money on desk space.

The service and others like it have the potential to make workers more productive when away from the office, but first they need to prove more than just a minority of early adopters are willing to give up a further element of their privacy to the internet.

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