Employers like to be in control. It's one of the reasons they enjoy being where they are. Part of that is keeping a watch over the hours their staff work.
There are distinct advantages in doing so. Time tracking helps to identify areas where employees' time could be better spent, improving overall productivity.
With more workforces embracing mobile arrangements or more flexible work-life-friendly hours, time tracking is becoming essential for keeping tabs on employees who may not always be in the same room or even the same state or country.
As well as promoting productivity, time tracking helps to rein in time theft, when employees accept payment for time they have not spent on company business.
Estimates suggest the average employee “steals” between four and five hours a week from their employer, adding up to one full working week every year. That adds up to a cost to businesses of hundreds of billions of dollars a year worldwide.
Time theft comes in a variety of guises and is often difficult to detect.
Time sheet fraud: When employees are responsible for logging their own hours, the practice of rounding up to the nearest hour or embellishing hours worked is considered time sheet fraud.
Break abuse: The most common form of time theft, involving taking longer or more frequent breaks than authorised. Smokers are often accused of this by their non-smoking colleagues.
Personal business: Making and receiving personal phone calls, texting and spending work time on social networking sites are all forms of time theft. Extreme cases even include using company time to run a separate business.
Should you track time?
Despite the losses incurred and the productivity gains to be made, there is a school of thought that labels time tracking as counter-productive.
Proponents point to the fact that physical tracking of employees does not correlate directly to productivity.
For instance, while a GPS tracking device on a company car or mobile can pinpoint an employee's exact whereabouts, it cannot tell what that person is doing or whether they are carrying out company business.
Similarly, a time clock can tell when an employee punches in, but has no way of recording what activities they engage in before they punch out again.
The main objection of time tracking opponents is that it creates a culture of mistrust within an organisation.
If employees are required to constantly report their whereabouts or are placed under frequent personal or electronic surveillance, they are likely to feel they are not trusted.
If they don't feel trusted, then they don't feel valued. This can result in resentment, reduced productivity, high staff turnover and all the other issues associated with a negative company culture.
Rather than checking up on their employees, time tracking opponents argue that bosses should trust their employees and let them know it. Studies have shown that if employees feel valued, they are likely to work harder, take more responsibility and require less supervision than those who are treated like errant schoolchildren who must be watched at all times.
Is time tracking really necessary?
Some argue yes, and there is a multi-million dollar time tracking industry to prove it.
Others may argue that good staff morale is more important and more profitable in the long run than any short-term productivity gains made through time tracking.
Perhaps, as in most arguments, moderation is the key. You may just be able to have the best of both worlds if you:
* Clearly spell out to your employees what is considered acceptable use of company time, while still being flexible enough to allow for the odd long lunch, personal phone call, text, or check-in on social media (but a formal social media policy is highly recommended);
* Use only reasonable recording measures to streamline your payroll procedures;
* Set clear goals and KPIs and judge an employee's performance by whether they achieve them, rather than focusing on how they achieve them and how much time it takes.
Paul Slezak is a co-founder of RecruitLoop, an online recruitment marketplace based in Australia and San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter.