More to time than clock watching

“Many organisations address only one aspect of lost time, or else tackle the symptom and not the cause,” argues Christine Owen, healthcare and group benefits consultant at William M Mercer. “Instead of dealing only with sickness absence, they need a broader approach that also takes account of lost productivity, lost opportunities and staff turnover.”

When all these factors are added together the total costs of lost time to a large company can be as much as 20 per cent of payroll, she says.

Wandsworth Council came down heavily on exaggerated sickness claims last year, only to face a strike revolt by staff that would actually have aggravated the problem if it had carried out its plans. Owen points to this as an example of restricted vision that could have led to negative consequences.

As well as the hard business issues, companies should take account of attitudes, perceptions and behaviours of both managers and employees. This means not only establishing the cause, frequency and cost of sickness absence, but also auditing such data as medical insurance claims, employers’ liability cases and lost business opportunities to obtain the full picture.

Cause and effects

Understanding the cause and effects of sickness absence is just one of a range of issues that software vendors increasingly take account of, as they integrate time and attendance monitoring with HR systems in ways that enable it to be part of strategic decision making.

The analysis capability built into the new generation of products is illustrated by IBM’s HR Access, which besides sending time-keeping details to payroll can now use them to help with project planning. For instance, the effect of absence and turnover on revenue can be established by comparing the data to the organisation’s competencies and objectives. The system also takes employees into account, referring to each individual’s skills and abilities.

“Absence data is a key requirement for payroll but it also carries implications for turnover,” explains Steve Knapman, HR Access sales manager. “Those can be understood by identifying employees’ aspirations and the extent to which they are being met.”

Keith Statham, managing director of Kronos Systems UK, agrees that the emphasis is shifting from traditional time keeping to managing lost time. He uses the term “frontline labour management”, arguing that managers and supervisors need tools to understand what is often a much more complex business than merely knowing the hours the workforce keeps.

Often that involves integrating time data into other productivity indices. In distribution, for example, the number of items shipped can be compared to the number of hours worked or lost, providing an indication of performance levels. But that needs to be done continuously rather than at intervals, Statham emphasises, to avoid coming up with misleading averages.

Managers need to be able to measure not just the time that a person is working, but also the type of activity. “The question is, does the amount of time I am investing in this relate to payback?” asks Statham. “If you are constantly putting more effort in than the income justifies then you need to address that, by definition increasing productivity and saving lost time.”

Scheduling

As work patterns become more flexible managers have increasing difficulties with scheduling. Time can be lost not just by an employee arriving late or being off sick, but by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. More accurate rostering can also reduce overtime, which means a company is not paying over the odds at the end of the day to an employee who may have come in two hours late.

That is particularly an issue in call centres, where managers have to plan shift manning against anticipated call frequency. That is often difficult because of their variable contracts and workloads, according to Graham Reinelt, managing director of hfx. “If a major car manufacturer does a mailshot the traffic will suddenly treble,” he points out.

The solution is staff planning software that picks up previous call distribution data and calculates future needs. That is sent to an information terminal which employees can refer to when deciding which shifts to work.

This type of approach is also increasingly being adopted by traditional sectors. Cargo Service Centre, an air-cargo hand-ling company at Heathrow, uses planning software provided by Smart PeopleTime to anticipate any shortfall resulting from holiday and absence. The system identifies a suitable replacement, ensuring that there is no disruption and minimising lost productivity. It also avoids having to ask employees to work long hours at short notice, a potential flash point.

Mobile workers

Another growing need is to monitor the productivity of employees who work remotely. Here web technology can help: Smart PeopleTime has an online system that enables professional and mobile workers to record their activity by dialling into the company intranet.

The software can also provide analysis, for instance comparing the time charged to the client with the revenue expected. It can show where time was not charged and indicate whether this is due to study leave, training, planning, selling or travelling.

PR consultancy Hill and Knowlton acquired the system to monitor its 300 staff, who gain access from any remote PC. Finance manager Michael Pledge says, “The system can cope with high levels of data and provides us with the facility to analyse our working time better. It ensures that each client is receiving an accurate report of recorded time on their PR activities and it encourages staff to closely plan and monitor their own working hours.”

Not all workers use a PC, however, and in these cases a handheld device is expected to be a favoured method. This is already technically possible with wireless application protocol (WAP) phones, although they are unlikely to be used for the purpose until the price comes down.

But time-and-attendance vendors such as hfx are actively exploring the idea, which they say will be invaluable in sectors such as contract cleaning, for instance, where managers at present have little control over employees’ punctuality. As employers’ needs change according to ever-evolving work patterns, technology can usually be relied on to provide an appropriate solution.

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