[Guest Blog] Rethinking the Time Machine at Work

2-Jul-2020 Greg Smith Insider

The Next Generation Timeclock - Contactless, Intelligent and Software Centric - Designed for the COVID Era

In the United States alone it is estimated that over 80 million people (close to 60% of the entire workforce) are paid an hourly wage. It is the organization’s responsibility to ensure that these workers are consistently paid in accordance to the hours worked and in compliance with the applicable laws and regulations. Given that a large number of workers are paid at or close to minimum wage, it is even more important from an ethical standpoint that time accounting is maintained accurately. In fact, the wage related regulation and labor laws in most states provide prescriptive guidance on which activities (e.g. lunch breaks, training time) are considered paid time to prevent underpayment. This requires a baseline level of sophistication for the time and attendance systems and processes.

 The good news is that the backend systems of record for time and attendance have evolved over the years to provide adequate functionality in terms of implementing the time accounting and integration with payroll systems to ensure that proper payments are assured. These backend systems often rely on time clocks for data collection and employ a variety of authentication methods for identifying the employee, ranging from paper punch cards to fingerprint scanners, as shown in the chart below:

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Source: Survey conducted by Software Advice (2015)


Traditional (Hardware-based) Time Clocks and Extensions

 The traditional time clock is a custom piece of hardware that serves the single purpose of allowing an employee to punch in and out through some form of badge contact, paper stamp, key code, and/or fingerprint scan, etc. These antiquated pieces of hardware have been deployed for decades and are currently being replaced by adaptations or variations of other hardware solutions, such as touch screens or palm readers, and software options such as on-line web applications.

With the proliferation of smartphones, mobile app based geo-clocking has emerged as a very useful tool for remote/field workers. However, for on-site workers, company provided time clock hardware continues to be the preferred organizational method of time collection. For a wide range of companies which employ on-site workers, simple time clocks have been sufficient.  But for many manufacturing, warehousing, energy, healthcare, construction and education organizations there has been a movement towards biometric fingerprint readers in addition to the standard time clocks. This has been largely driven by the lack of identity assurance of non-biometric solutions. In other words, non-biometric systems do not prevent a person from scanning somebody else's badge or timecard, commonly known as “buddy punching”. Of course, employees who commit time theft do not always have malicious intentions. According to studies by the American Payroll Association (APA), almost 75 percent of businesses in the U.S. are affected by what is known as “time theft.” This occurs when employees are paid for time they have not actually worked, either by having someone else clock them in or by inaccurately recording their hours.

Implications of COVID-19 on Fingerprint Based or PIN Entry Time Clocks

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), the COVID-19 virus has been found to survive on plastic and stainless-steel surfaces for up to two to three days. Potentially vulnerable workers are required to clock in and out when they use contact-based authentication time clock systems such as Biometric readers, palm readers and pin-entry keypads with plastic touch surfaces thus increasing their chances of becoming infected. Such communal surfaces are high-risk zones for the contagion, with prominent manufacturers currently combating major outbreaks that are impacting hundreds of workers and threatening our food and medical supply chain.

Out of concern for this potential spread, employees in New York City have protested the fingerprint biometric time clocks as reported in the New York Post.  Organizations such as the New York Police Department and the Metropolitan Transit Authority have been forced to reconsider their contact-based authentication systems. In the last few weeks, the NYPD decided to suspend fingerprint biometrics at its headquarters. The MTA also said that it will stop using fingerprint-scanning time clocks in an attempt to slow down the spread of the virus.  How quickly can a solution be developed which adequately addresses health concerns while not diluting the organizational advantage of these devices? This is an important question to ask, as there are many pressures that can result in an organization’s need to be agile for changing requirements. Is the answer to try and sterilize adequately the current devices and environments?  A quick processing of the logistics and costs point to this being unsustainable.

The COVID-19 pandemic crisis has also highlighted a larger discussion around organizational preparedness to adapt. The organizations with the most progressive digital transformation programs have been able to modify their workflows quickly in order to respond to this crisis. In this regard, the traditional time clocks are limited in their ability to deploy modified functionality as they are based on custom hardware platforms and operating systems. As an example, most employers are now administering temperature checks and a COVID-19 symptoms questionnaire as part of the everyday check-in process to prevent contagion. Adding these checks as part of the current clocking workflow would be ideal but not realistic with today’s clocking processes.  

The future: Contactless Time Clocks that incorporate the benefits of Biometrics

 In today’s pandemic, worker safety is at the forefront of organizational tasks. Creating a contagion-limited environment is an investment that is necessary from an employee protection standpoint. Contactless time clocks can play a pivotal role in reducing the risk of contact on communal surfaces in environments that have historically required contact through fingerprints, badging or inputting. If a worker can clock-in without physically touching any device, 6 feet away from others, an employer is providing the proper safeguards for their workers. However, reducing contact is just part of the issue. With facial biometrics as the method chosen, authentication will be much quicker than with other technology options, mitigating against congestion during shift changes.

 Facial biometric technology can be a crucial, and extremely advantageous technology if it is deployed by a company who puts human privacy first. Converting an employee's face into a biometric code not only gives privacy and reassurance to the employee him or herself but gives the organization a level of identity assurance not found with any other form of biometric. If contactless time clocks via facial biometric technology are deployed, employees no longer have to worry about forgetfulness, theft, or potential infringement of personal identity, while organization’s benefit from the abrupt end to buddy punching.  Adoption of such technology by individuals will be painless as employees have grown accustomed to such technologies via smart phone deployments

 Lastly, but not limited to, onboarding and offboarding of employees can be streamlined through the use of facial biometrics as the form of authentication. The reliance upon a physical badge, both eco-unfriendly and costly over time or fingerprint ‘reliability onboarding’, are no longer required. The employer will be able to introduce a one-step onboarding and off-boarding process, delivering efficiency and safety (of terminated employees) in the workplace.

Article by: Greg Smith

Greg Smith today consults with organizations on strategy, structural design, and go to market optimization while also teaching in multiple MBA programs.  He previously held executive level positions in multiple software companies including Kronos Inc, the global leader in time and attendance systems. 

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