Many firms ask staff to clock in and clock out. Time clocking is an established management practice, understood and accepted by many. But this single practice serves as an example of the complex relationship between management and staff.
Technological advances have made time clocking systems simple and many managers now find such systems attractive.
Clocking in is simple enough. On arriving at work, a worker takes some action to note his or her time of arrival on some central system. It could be a signing-in sheet, a box on the wall or some fancy app. That action marks the end of the worker’s own time and the beginning of work time. It marks the time for which they are paid. But that drawing of a line in time is massively symbolic and fraught with problems.
Ultimately we all get the security argument. Knowing who’s in the building and who’s not is important. Somehow, when security’s muted, almost anything – even the most Draconian – is acceptable. And security agencies and firms are sometimes apparently the most lax. Being given apparently unfettered access throughout a defence organisation’s building is a strange feeling. Until, that is, that you realise that an RFID tag on your pass lets security know exactly where you are, always.
But many firms install time clocking systems for other reasons. This blog urges caution if the relationship between management and staff is to be protected.
The watchword is proportionality. As with most management action, do only that needed to achieve the required business outcome.
Be Clear on Why
Asking staff (and visitors) to clock in and out is introduced in pursuit of many aims. Some staff are paid only when they are actually registered as working. It may be that they have a contract for variable hours. It may be that they work flexitime, around a core. In that case, any hours over those contracted can be clawed back from the firm as paid holiday. It may also be to demark normal time and overtime – with overtime perhaps paid at some enhanced rate.
In other cases, clocking is done to register who’s in and who’s not. That’s a simple enough need – management needs to know who’s in the building because management is responsible for worker and visitor health and safety. But sometimes, it’s done just to control what staff are doing, perhaps as a knee-jerk reaction to poor timekeeping in a previous uncontrolled regime.
But it’s that line drawn in time that’s the killer for relationships.
By demarking a worker’s personal time and their work time, various activities suddenly are forced to one side or other. This is the first and central issue – a weakening of trust. The worker is sent a message saying they’re no longer trusted and a machine or system will manage the position of the line. That means that they must decide what to do if they’ve not quite finished the piece of work they were doing as the line is crossed – carry on to finish, or leave it until the next work period the next day? Decisions are needed about all sorts of things – and management needs to define, for the first time, if activities like packing up and putting on a coat is in-work or out.
With weakened trust goes the feeling that things are unfair – unfair that personal time is lost, perhaps because of rounding down to the nearest 15 minutes in the machine. Loss of trust and feelings that things are unfair erodes staff commitment. Feelings of unfairness also make staff disinclined to engage in discretionary behaviours – like, “I’ll just take that manual home and read it”. Suddenly what’s in and what’s out is clear. There are no more blurred lines and there’s no more flexibility.
It’s a strange feeling when you realise that ‘Big Brother’ is watching you. In a government building, the elation that your security clearance is enough to allow you to walk unfettered – only to then realise that your every step is being monitored. The inner buzz that comes from feeling trusted, followed by the deep suspicion and resentment that follows when that trust is broken. When a time clocking system is introduced, staff experience exactly those swings in feelings. The skill for management is to make sure that system introduction doesn’t damage the psychological contract – the unwritten relationship between management and staff that drives staff commitment and ultimately staff engagement with their jobs.
So, given that some form of clocking or monitoring system is to be introduced, how should it be done?
Don’t Let Time Clocking Degrade Commitment
Firstly, management needs to decide what’s important, and why the system is necessary. There are many ways of solving problems. For example, poor timekeeping may reflect damaged staff commitment that actually stems from some other problem. Introducing time booking may simply add to the original problem and ultimately further degrade commitment. So be sure that the time clocking is being introduced for the right reasons – for reasons that will have positive business benefit. For example, efficiency in payroll processing, flexi-time registration or security.
Secondly, communicate with staff. Even better – have staff design the system and determine the rules given the business problem that management wishes to counter. Communicate in the design, communicate over the purchase, communicate during the implementation and communicate through the inevitable teething troubles in the initial months of use. And be tolerant of genuine issues staff may have.
And finally, always design the system to overcome the operational problem. Make the solution proportional to the problem. For example, if the system is to facilitate client billing, don’t use it to try to control when staff come in and out, when they pack up and to constrain their flexibility. In this case, be clear that what matters is getting the work done, not just being there.
Identify the problem and design the system to solve that alone. Avoid features of the system that will degrade staff commitment. Ultimately, time clocking is an aid to management, not a substitute for good management.