UK: TIME TO TRUST THE WORKER. - How can you empower employees while they still clock on?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

How can you empower employees while they still clock on?

Will the time-honoured procedure of clocking on and off for work have any place in the new millennium? Or have such systems had their day?

The old-fashioned punch-card device is irrevelant to this question, incidentally.

Technology is replacing punch-card systems with more modern methods using swipe cards, but that doesn't affect the principle. And it's clear that the principle is still widely applied. Workers at British Aerospace, for one, still clock on for work.

The survival of this ritual puzzles Dr Sue Newell, lecturer in human resources at Warwick Business School. 'One would have thought companies would be getting rid of it,' she says. 'If you are trying to empower employees, clocking in and out does not bode well. It implies you are not confident they can keep an accurate tally on their time.'

Far from dying out, the practice is on the increase here and there, particularly where employers are adopting flexible working practices. Newell is sceptical about flexible working as a justification for clocking on. 'Some firms are becoming more controlling,' she says. 'And their control is far more rigid than necessary. Many companies claim to be empowering their workforces although in reality they are not.' Angela Barron, of the Institute of Personnel and Development, agrees that employers should think carefully before introducing time checks: 'If you are trying to build a culture of trust, it doesn't seem appropriate.'

Over at The Industrial Society, Stefan Stern accepts that clocking on can suggest a degree of suspicion. But, he argues, it's not simply a matter of spying on the workforce. 'Clocking on allows employers to keep track in the best sense. It makes sense from a safety point of view. It also provides an easy way to calculate overtime payments. It may prevent employees from overworking and can help companies manage tough production deadlines.' There's a lot of flexitime worked on some British Aerospace sites, which number more than 30 in the UK. 'It's easy for the employee or company to lose track of hours worked,' points out spokesman Simon Raynes. And BAe regards clocking on as 'a convenient way of monitoring overtime'.

Tate & Lyle Sugars introduced a card-operated access control system covering its 1,000 employees eight years ago. 'It provided information used for a variety of purposes including security, pay, job-costing, time and attendance,' says employee and community services officer Michael Grier. The site is open 24 hours a day, he adds: 'This was a matter of concern from a safety point of view.' Now, however, the card access system is being reviewed with an eye to the company's teamworking and empowerment initiatives.

'It's important to retain the security aspects of the system, in that we need to know who is on site,' Grier emphasises. But the time and attendance element is to be abandoned. And in future supervisors and line managers will be responsible for managing employees' time. Lucas Industries has gone further, and completely phased out clocking on for all its 24,000 UK employees, 'Working practices have moved on from that system of monitoring,' declares corporate communication manager Sarah Ward.

But across British industry as a whole, 'clocking on is still very common,' according to Andrew Murray, spokesman for the Transport and General Workers Union. 'You may find true empowerment in a design studio, but we see very little real sign of it in industry so far'. Evidently, time is not yet up for the time clocks. Murray himself clocks on for work at the union's London head office.

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