A few companies ago, we had a PC set up at a small station near the elevator. This machine ran a time and attendance system developed by our president, which was involved punching in an employee number (I was 121, I think) and choosing from options that ranged from “Coffee Break” to “Maternity Leave.” We all hated it, but eventually it became as regular as brushing your teeth. Checkpoint Charlie, as we called the system, is long gone, and I sometimes can’t believe the lengths to which I now have to manually prove I was present and accounted for.
Every week, for example, I have to fill out an attendance report on my staff’s whereabouts which is submitted to HR. I also have to fill out a form about my own attendance to my publisher. When we’re sick or taking vacation, we submit other paperwork. About once a month, though, I get e-mails asking about the attendance of my staff or myself on specific, arcane days, and I’m left to try to remember which industry events we attended or business trips we took, in some cases discovering that the proper forms have been waylaid somehow. As presence technologies infiltrate the enterprise, I can’t imagine the situation getting much better.
Technologies like session initiation protocol (SIP) and unified communications are allowing people to forwarding important business data from office phones and desktops to mobile devices in highly useful ways. What that technology also does, however, is potentially change the behaviour of the employees using it. If you can get more calls or e-mails sent en route to a meeting or in between sessions at a conference, for example, you’re more likely to make decisions or perform tasks that would have waited until your return. Presence technologies, in other words, enlarge the enterprise geography – making in-office attendance less of an issue in terms of productivity, but more of an issue in terms of monitoring.
Of course, companies could deploy tools that run reports about how often you’ve checked your mobile device or used applications on it, but that probably seems like more trouble than simply entering information in a time management system. And yet businesses are also requiring employees to do more work on the fly, to multi-task and to be more responsive to customer issues. That may mean more off-site work, more off-the-clock work, but also more work that needs to be logged. Beyond productivity concerns there is also the need for a trial (paper-based or otherwise) that details what’s happened over the course of the project.
If you’re a consultant, what we’re talking about are billable hours. But for a lot of enterprise employees it may become even more granular than that – it’s more like billable minutes. The minutes in this case may not be directly revenue producing but may reflect the opportunity costs associated with choosing one priority over another. It’s not easy to do in Excel, and it’s not even that easy to do with some of the existing time management systems available on the market.
Knowledge work is much more project-oriented than routine, which complicates attendance tracking. Mobility, presence and other technologies will place the emphasis on what we’re doing rather than where we are while we’re doing it. Companies will need to decide if they’re satisfied with that particular paradigm shift – if they can start thinking of the entire world as their floor plan.