Big Brother’s Watching � and Saving You Big Money

The temptation to goof off or fudge time sheets and gas mileage is apparently irresistible, at least to some field workers. And even the best employees often end up estimating their hours long after the fact, introducing costly errors. 

At R&J Construction Inc., a renovation firm in Danville, Calif., keeping track of where workers were and what they were doing became a major issue. To get the situation under control, R&J earlier this year started using an innovative Web-based time-tracking solution from Automatic Data Processing Inc. (ADP) and Xora Inc.

Workers now carry cell phones equipped with GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers that track and record where they go then and transmit their whereabouts and movements over the cellular network to a Xora computer. Employees also use software on the phones to record how they’re spending their time.

Big Savings
R&J controller Paula Wiens believes the new system will save the company as much as $200,000 in the first year. And because it was able to use the Sprint Nextel push-to-talk phones that workers were already carrying, it only cost about $5,000 to implement – plus monthly fees for the Xora and ADP services.

R&J specializes in high-end remodeling work in Danville and nearby towns and cities in the San Francisco Bay area. With 53 employees, most of them working at client sites all day, the company earns about $10-million in revenues annually.

The main time-tracking problem was that employees didn’t bother recording their hours until they came in to the office on Monday morning for the weekly staff meeting. And then they recorded them the old-fashioned way – on paper time sheets.

“They were trying to do it based on memory, and they were making mistakes,” said Wiens. “Then we had people in the office processing those time cards [keying the data into a computer]. That was more opportunity for error. So we decided to automate.”

The first idea was to implement the Pay eXpert Internet payroll service from ADP, a company Wiens had worked with in the past and trusted. It was ADP that suggested bringing Xora into the project. “We didn’t even know they had such a thing [as the Xora GPS service],” she said. “But since we already had the Nextel phones, it all kind of fit.”

Now each night, Xora uploads the location and time-tracking data from the phones to R&J’s ADP ezLaborManager service. From there the data is exported to ADP Pay eXpert. All of the information is accessible to authorized R&J employees from any Net-connected computer.

The Need to Know

Getting an accurate record of how workers spend their time is critical for a company like R&J for a couple of reasons. The firm delivers time-and-materials bills to clients, detailing what work was done on a project and when. If workers mistakenly or deliberately say they were working at a client’s home when they were not, and the client knows they were not, it hurts relations with the client. It also potentially the firm’s reputation in the market. 

There were a few occasions when employees made mistakes or deliberately falsified time sheets and were found out by clients who checked their bills, Wiens admitted. “This company was built solely on reputation,” she said. “We work in a small [market area]. Everything comes from, ‘You did work for this person and we love what you did, so we want you to work for us.’ Anything negative out there can be detrimental to our business”

The problem goes deeper, though. If workers incorrectly report that it took 70 hours to do work the firm’s estimators figured would – and actually did – only take 60 hours, estimators are likely in future to issue higher bids on similar projects to cover the expected labor costs. “And that makes us less competitive,” Wiens pointed out.

The company is already seeing some improvements in its competitiveness because it has a better handle now on how long it really takes workers to do jobs. Managers are also analyzing the data to figure out how long it takes particular workers to do particular tasks so they can put together the best team to work on a project given the type of work involved.

How R&J Saves
Because the new system completely automates time tracking, the company is saving the ten to 15 minutes a week each of about 50 field workers spent filling out their time sheets, and the three hours a week office staff spent keying the data into a computer. It may not translate to the bottom line, but it does mean field workers can spend that time on billable work, and office staff can use the time saved to do other necessary work.

The really dramatic savings came from an initially unplanned source. Until it implemented the ADP/Xora system, R&J issued workers with gas credit cards they could use to fill their trucks to get them from site to site. The trouble is, some were abusing the company’s trust, using the cards to fill their spouse’s cars or even their boats.

Now the company pays employees a per-mile rate based on the actual travel they do in the course of their work – which it can calculate precisely from the GPS data Xora captures. The new system is saving the company a whopping $6,000 a month in travel costs. After several months of using the new system, mileage costs have stabilized and are quite consistent, Wiens said. So the savings should be repeated each year.

R&J expects additional soft benefits. The data from the Xora system will help it prove to clients that it actually performed work it claims in its detailed bills, eliminating potentially relationship-damaging contention. Employees also won’t be able to dispute the paid hours they worked because the evidence from the Xora data will be incontestable.

And the company is using the system to ensure it’s in compliance with government labor regulations that require employees to be given a lunch break if they work longer than a five-hour shift. It sends messages to employees on their cell phones reminding them they need to take a break, and monitors data from the Xora software to make sure they actually log off work for the required period.

Available Everywhere

The fact that both the Xora and ADP services are Web based is another boon. It means that if Wiens, who is responsible for monitoring the Xora position- and time-tracking data, is at home on a day off and her boss needs information about where a particular worker is, she can easily log in to the system from her home computer and get it. “I love that it’s Web-based,” she said.

The system isn’t perfect, though. When one employee didn’t want the company to find out that he was taking an unscheduled side trip to get lunch while on an errand, he left his phone at the work site so it would look like he was still there. Unfortunately for him, he was spotted at a McDonalds drive-through.

“It comes down to hiring the right people,” Wiens said. “If someone wants to steal from you or be lazy, which is the equivalent of stealing, short of permanently attaching [the phone] to their person, there’s not much you can do about it.” Unless, as in this case, you get lucky.

There was some resistance to the new system. “They’re guys,” Wiens quipped. “Of course they resisted change.” Some objected to “the whole big brother is watching thing.” But those who had nothing to hide embraced it, she said, and it’s so easy to use that nobody had any trouble learning the new procedures.

R&J purchased an already-integrated suite of services from ADP and Xora. It works very smoothly, and the odd time it doesn’t, or when the company wants to explore adding new functionality, Xora and ADP are very responsive, Wiens said. “Both companies have been absolutely great.”

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell
has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print
and online publications since the 1980s.

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