Hey Big Brother Get Outta My Miserable Cubicle
Hey Big Brother Get Outta My Miserable Cubicle
As more and more white-collar companies implement attendance-tracking
systems, more and more people dream of desperate, epiphanic escape
It's 9 a.m. Do you know where your workers are?
Increasingly, companies do. In their drive to squeeze greater efficiency from staffers, a growing number of employers are embracing sophisticated electronic tracking systems to ensure their workers are at their desks and work stations when they are supposed to be. And while many blue-collar workers are used to punching a time clock, many of the new tracking systems are trained on white-collar, salaried employees.
At New York law firm Akin & Smith LLC, paralegals, receptionists and clerks clock in by placing a finger on a sensor kept at a secretary's desk. "It keeps everyone honest," says Derek T. Smith, a managing partner at the firm. "I like to see how long they take for lunch," he says, adding that the system so far has been "very successful" in boosting productivity.
For Wanda Ortiz, a 24-year-old paralegal, the firm's biometric system was a bit of a shock at first. "I never saw anything like this" at three previous law-firm jobs, she says. But she says placing her thumb on the sensor whenever she enters or leaves the office has made her more conscious about getting back to work on time after breaks. "I do rush at lunchtime if I go out," Ms. Ortiz says.
At the Mitsubishi Motors North America plant in Normal, Ill., Andy Whaley, a manager of accounting, can check from his desktop computer how many of the plant's 500 white-collar employees have shown up for work. These employees clock in using a Web-based system at their desks. The setup also tracks how many of its 2,600 assembly workers are on the plant floor. These blue-collar employees "swipe in" with an identification badge instead of filling in a paper time card
"We look at the system every day, and we can see how many people are working both on the floor-associate side and the salary side," Mr. Whaley says. "Once we capture that data, we can look at those reports and say, 'Hey, we worked so many hours this shift and we built so many cars.' "
Economic Advantages Corp., a mortgage-services company with offices in Woodstock, Vt., and Manhasset, N.Y., installed an attendance-tracking system last month. It requires the company's 35 employees to punch in using a finger-recognition technology. The new system means that, in effect, the company's salaried workers, which mostly are client-services representatives, now get paid by the hour.
"Most of them are very honest about what they do so they have no fears," says Lynn Simmons, the company's president. But "there's always a person or two that were trying to get one over on me. This way if they take a half-day off and don't make it up they don't get paid for it."
Illiana Financial Credit Union in Calumet City, Ill., has used a fingerprint-recognition system to track its tellers and loan officers since early 2001. "I can look at my employees (electronically)," says Doug Leighner, information technology manager. Since the system was installed, it has "probably saved us 10 or 15 minutes a day per employee" in payroll costs by preventing workers from padding their time sheets by staying late or starting early unnecessarily, says Mr. Leighner.
Workplace-rights advocates say such tracking systems are often needlessly invasive. "The real problem is employers conducting surveillance and tracking when they have absolutely no reason to think there's anything wrong," says Lewis Maltby, president of National Workrights Institute, a Princeton, N.J., nonprofit that focuses on human rights in the workplace. "If you can't tell if someone is doing their job without checking their physical location every five minutes you're not much of a manager."
Others argue that when workers are subjected to such tight tracking, their morale, and hence productivity, can actually fall. "Being chained to your desk or job post is one measure (of productivity) but not the only measure," says Pam Dixon, an author and privacy-rights expert in San Diego. "Instead of having a work environment that fosters flexibility and creativity, there's less room for individual variances and personality variances," Ms. Dixon argues. "I think there's a more robust way of looking at people instead of clocking them."
But managers say being able to create an on-the-spot printout of an employee's attendance can be a persuasive management tool. "You can show them and say, 'Look, these are the hours that you were working a few months ago, and now you're only working this amount of hours,' " said Mr. Smith, the law-firm partner.
"Companies need to manage their workers better," argues Michael DiPietro, vice president of product and industry marketing for Kronos Inc., a Chelmsford, Mass., provider of attendance-monitoring systems, along with payroll and scheduling products. "One of the things they're trying to do is to make sure there isn't an abuse of time." Kronos says it is the biggest provider of attendance-tracking systems in the U.S., with clients including Waste Management Inc., Georgia-Pacific Corp. and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.
Kronos has seen the trend toward monitoring salaried workers. According to Mr. DiPietro, one client, a large computer manufacturer that had used a Kronos system for hourly workers, extended the product to cover 25,000 salaried employees when it upgraded its system in 2001.
While the efficiencies, including reducing overtime abuses and improving scheduling, may be real, another attraction for managers is the ability to keep an eye on lazy workers, especially nonunionized office workers who don't work in shifts and generally have more freedom to schedule their days. "Everybody wants tardy information and extra-hour information and (data about) long lunches on their salary people," says Brent Larsen, senior developer at Count Me In LLC, a Mount Prospect, Ill., company that sells attendance-tracking systems that use fingerprint-recognition technology. "They generally don't use it for payroll. They use it to chew them out."
Count Me In is adding 50 to 100 customers a month, Mr. Larsen says. As many as 40 percent of the company's 1,000 customers use the system to track the attendance of some salaried workers, he adds.
By linking devices to a computer network, the new attendance-tracking systems let employers monitor widely dispersed workers more readily, from employees working across multiple offices to telecommuters -- and even migrant workers.
TriB Nursery Inc., a Tahlequah, Okla., plant wholesaler, is testing a hand-recognition system to supplant punch-card time clocks to track more than 500 migrant workers across 300 acres during the company's busiest season. "Before, you had to go out and make phone calls or go to the walkie-talkie" to figure out how many workers were on the job at a given time, says Dave Watt, chief financial officer. The hand readers, from Qqest Software Systems Inc. of Salt Lake City, also prevent "buddy punching," in which friends clock in for one another.
But the nursery's ability to identify workers and shift them around with greater efficiency is the biggest plus, says Mr. Watt.