Could 2014 be the beginning of the end for the employee time clock?

“While the time clock itself will be built into other functionality on smartphones, on tablets, even on Web-enabled PCs, we’re starting to see a reduction in dependence on actual implemented hard time clock units mounted on the wall,” said Zachary Chertok, HR and human capital management (HCM) analyst at Boston-based Nucleus Research Inc.
Throughout the last decade, time and attendance capabilities and workforce analytics have been built into terminal systems that have relied on company-built user interfaces that aren’t particularly intuitive and that require training, he added.

The fact that the time clock is being phased out shouldn’t be a surprise, according to Jason Averbook, chief business innovation officer at cloud consultancy Appirio in San Francisco. “The time clock needs to die a slow death. It’s very similar to what happened to the rotary phone,” he said.

While the employee time clock might not go the way of the dinosaur quite yet, its usefulness could be winding down in light of next-generation time and attendance software, according to experts.

Geolocation software capabilities rivaling standard time clocks

To replace physical time clocks, time and attendance software vendors are moving toward technologies like geofencing, geolocation and photo biometric recognition, Chertok said. With these developments, mobile devices often become the new employee time clock, and managers gain the ability to control the software’s functionality depending on where the employee is.

Mobile and geo-aware devices can track where employees are, so punches can be tied to their physical location. “So they do geofencing and you can walk in and walk out of a space and punch in and out, and managers can look and see where their employees are — who’s in a specific place,” said Stephan Millard, vice president and HCM research director at Ventana Research in San Ramon, Calif. “Almost all time and labor software vendors are doing this or have applications that work for it.”

However, Millard said the market still has a large device business that he doesn’t think will go away anytime soon.

“Time clocks will probably become something that won’t necessarily be part of [the] time and labor software market because smartphones and geo-aware devices will do the same thing,” he said. “But Kronos recently [had] a great month selling time clocks. They couldn’t produce the things fast enough.”

Although physical employee time clocks will eventually be phased out, it won’t be happening in the near term in Millard’s opinion. “People aren’t going to do it immediately, even though it makes sense,” he said. “The large percentage of people are going to stick with what they know.”

But for those companies that are ready to move away from the employee time clock, Averbook said they should consider where their people are most likely to interact with time and attendance software to make the shift as noninvasive as possible.

“So if they’re walking around with mobile devices all day long, let’s make sure we have [them] punch in [and] out on a mobile device,” he said. “If they all happen to go to a cafeteria every time they take a break, let’s make sure there’s an iPad there that they can put their employee number in and say ‘in’ or ‘out.’ Let’s meet the consumer right in the middle of where they have to do their process.”

Time and attendance software aids compliance and scheduling

Organizations that do adopt time and attendance software will reap the benefits.

With this software, Chertok said managers can call up detailed scheduling views to fill in shift gaps and vacation time. “Skill sets will be accessible through a big data database that will prioritize available candidates based on compliance, overtime [and] skill [requirements] for the job available,” he said.

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Time and attendance software can also provide more information to employees than the traditional time clock, according to Averbook.

“For example, as I put in my employee ID, a quick note pops and says, ‘If you work over 6.25 hours today, you’re going to go into overtime, and overtime needs to be approved by a manager,'” he said. “That’s a huge value add that a piece of technology can provide that a time clock can’t.”

Vendors such as Kronos, Ceridian, Saba and others are already introducing these capabilities, and companies are biting because they reduce the amount of time spent on scheduling, Averbook said. They also lessen the back-office burden for cross analytics in scheduling and compliance maintenance, and cut back on compliance costs.

And with the roll out of the Affordable Care Act, Chertok said there has been a significant increase in compliance penalty costs in the last two years. “The fact that solutions are building in [these capabilities] enables managers to fill scheduling slots faster and smarter and enables companies to be more assured of the fact that they’re delivering on compliance promises and aren’t going to incur penalties,” Chertok said.

Employee time clock firmly rooted in some industries

However, some industries may be slower than others to do away with the wall-mounted time clock.

“For now, I think you’re going to see manufacturing and the distribution sectors shy away from [time and attendance software] because geotracking is relatively new,” Chertok said, “especially in manufacturing, which tends to be command-center-based. For them to break the model and start to put that in the hands of the end user, their end users may not bring technology to the workplace with them because of the environment.”

Chertok said the trend in those sectors will lean toward implementing universal access points.

“You’re going to have a combination in workplaces like manufacturing and distribution where the terminal will available, [as well as] computers [to] log in. You’ll have a combination of in-house and bring-your-own smart devices so employees can access” the time and labor system, he said. “So no matter where they are and no matter what technology they’re around, there’s always an access point. It’s not necessarily dependent on them bringing their own technology.”

And Averbook said, in certain sectors like manufacturing and retail, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with the time clock. However, companies should consider what could be gained through new technology.

“To replace the time clock just to replace the time clock isn’t the issue,” he said. “[It’s important] to look for ways to make it look more consumer-based for the workforce but also making sure that there’s a way to get the employees more information when they punch in.”

About the author:
Linda Rosencrance has written about technology for more than 10 years and has been a reporter for more than 20 years. A former Computerworldreporter, she is a freelance writer in Massachusetts and also an author of several true-crime books.