Profile: Big Brother isn't watching you

Managing the amount of time staff spend online is a subtle art. Guy Clapperton meets the boss who has it down to a tee
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The Independent Online

Technology brings in its wake many good and bad things. Some people are able to turn the bad things to their advantage – and even build a start-up business on them. One such company is Temperus, but to discuss that business it's essential to turn the clock back and look at the background a little.

It's 2006/2007 and the newspapers are full of the new fad for "social networking" – by which, we can take it, they mean being completely antisocial by sitting in front of a network and e-mailing or texting people rather than speaking to them. Facebook became the leader in this area. Other services, such as Instant Messaging (in which a little widget sits on the side of your screen and enables you to see which of your contacts are online and to exchange messages with them), became increasingly popular at the same.

This is the point at which a company called Periscopix comes into view. A web company that specialises in internet advertising campaigns and pay-per-click campaigns, it became aware that its staff were using these social networking sites. Unlike some other organisations it decided not to ban their use outright.

Periscopix owner Simon Norris looked at the issue a year and a half ago and wanted to address the working environment. "Like a lot of companies we were aware of Facebook and eBay and instant messaging, so we had a look around for solutions, and there were not many we liked," he says. The most common software addressing the problem would take the draconian step of blocking access to selected websites.

"We didn't want to do that, we wanted an environment where people could plan their own time, and if they wanted to do some personal activities in the day we were very comfortable with that, as long as they put in a solid day's work."

He found very little available to address the problem in the way he wanted, so decided to build something internally. Self-management went down well as a solution: Ben Gott, client service manager at Periscopix, explains: "It's a very easy-to-use thing – the user can see exactly what they've been doing and when, and you can then manage that." It was important to use a system that allowed this rather than something that put the administrators in some sort of exalted blocking system from on high

It was the users' reaction in his own company that persuaded Norris to look into launching the system as a commercial enterprise and sell it to other businesses, starting a few months ago.

"We saw that other companies were facing similar issues to ourselves. When we first started the exercise there was pretty limited press coverage but by the time we launched there was coverage of the TUC's statement [last summer, when the union organisation said employers should allow employees to spend some time at work online], and instances where companies had introduced a ban on Facebook for their employees ."

The evidence suggested, that there would be interest in the market. Norris freely admits that the software addresses a problem that is arguably managerial rather than technical. Yes, people can spend ages on Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, Instant Messaging each other or any of the other time-wasting activities that might present themselves. On the other hand they could text each other, spend ages on the phone and take long lunch breaks in High Street shops – time wasting is time wasting, surely, aren't the means and medium irrelevant?

"There are a lot of organisations now that have faced HR issues with this – in some examples there is an issue where people make excessive use of web resources, but I think as well there's a question of being able to create the right sort of environment and not making people feel they're being monitored in a Big Brother way – it's a matter of making them feel they're being trusted."

The new business, Temperus, is at an early stage.

"We are talking to three organisations at the moment and there are other lines of enquiry," says Norris. There is now a team of three effectively working as a cell within the Periscopix office. "Getting a good developer on board was the immediate challenge; clearly we needed to make sure the project was good quality and well supported." He also recruited a marketer and has outsourced PR and other support functions. The nature and size of a start-up is that its own marketing is low-key, including telesales and e-mail sales.

"We're approaching HR professionals because we do think it's a managerial issue. We're tackling HR and in smaller organisations managers or company owners; at this stage we're looking for companies in the small to medium size, but there's no reason not to look at larger companies further down the line."