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Lone worker support

Author : Christian Berenger

30 November 2011

Christian Berenger discusses how the latest workforce management solutions can help facility service contractors to improve site management and safeguard on-site workers.

All businesses need to keep one eye on health and safety regulations at all times, but none more so than in the facilities management industry where firms employ a large diverse workforce spread over multiple client sites.

The temporary and constantly changing nature of the facilities service industry creates special management challenges not found in other sectors. Client requirements change daily, different workers come and go as jobs transpire and are completed and contractors need to operate around the clock to fulfil contracts and Service Level Agreements.

The need to provide a continuous 24 hour service across multiple shifts and locations means remote workers are often exposed to situations where they have to work alone and left unsupervised outside normal working hours. Yet despite being exposed to significant risks and vulnerable situations in their everyday working lives, remote workers are, by and large, trusted to manage their own workload.

But times are changing. Driven by health and safety regulations and employment laws, employers have come under increasing pressure to monitor the welfare of their employees, especially lone workers. Employers have complete responsibility for the health and safety of all workers, whether they work alone or not, and the need to demonstrate duty of care for remote workers means employers now have to ensure that they have processes in place that enable them to monitor the working time of their employees.

Changing Times
While streamlining laborious routine processes such as timesheet calculations has been a standard functionality of time and attendance solutions for some time, many of today’s systems are capable of far more complex functions. Recent technological developments mean they can now support managers in verifying the attendance and movement of workers on remote locations and assist them in managing complex shift patterns and issues such as staff absence, breaks and overtime.

This has been made possible by the emergence of GPRS technology which allows data-capture devices to communicate wirelessly with web-based back-office management software from any location via mobile networks. The fact that the terminals communicate wirelessly means they can be easily installed and uninstalled on client sites as contracts are won and lost and don’t require cabling or access to a client network.

Employee data can be captured directly using mobile phones as well as more conventional data capture methods such as swipe card, proximity fobs, biometric hand scan terminals and landline telephones.

Biometric hand scan terminals are by far the most effective method of data capture as they positively identify the identity of workers in seconds and prevent buddy punching – the fraudulent activity of workers clocking in and out for one another. Hand recognition technology is highly robust, and because it measures the shape and height of the hand rather than scanning finger or palm prints its performance remains unaffected by harsh environments where employees' hands may be dirty, greasy or wet. This makes it ideal for the facilities sector.

For smaller contracts or on sites where biometric terminals aren’t deemed feasible, workers can verify their attendance using conventional landline telephones. With this system employees simply enter a unique PIN to verify their identity, whilst the system also verifies the site location by recording the CLI (Calling Line Identifier).

Controlling a flexible workforce
Once an employee clocks in for work, the data is relayed to a central server via a mobile network - without the need for human intervention – from which managers can monitor their entire workforce. By gaining immediate confirmation of staff attendance managers are able to confirm that site visits and work shifts have been completed as scheduled. This data is then stored in the system to provide an irrefutable audit trail of who clocked in when and where.

The latest time and attendance solutions feature many software modules to assist managers in their management of remote workers. But perhaps the most valuable application of them all is scheduling and forecasting software which enables managers to make optimum use of their resources.

Managers and owners in the facilities industry face enormous obstacles when planning shifts for a multi-faceted workforce – they must consider labour costs associated with overstaffing, variable customer demand and compliance to employment laws. But by using scheduling features held within the software managers are able to organise their workforce to accommodate anticipated workloads whilst taking into account holidays and absences.

Accurately scheduling staff time to meet future workloads removes the likelihood of overstaffing and boosts overall productivity because managers can make optimum use of their resources by ensuring that the right person is scheduled to perform the right tasks. Moreover staffing problems can be remedied months in advance to ensure clients receive a seamless service and aren’t affected by staff shortages.

Should employees fail to report for work within a pre-set time period managers are instantly notified by SMS or email alerts. This allows managers to provide prompt remedial action and cover staff absences quickly to reduce the possibility of a breakdown in service. Taking such proactive steps to cover unscheduled absences helps contractors to maintain high standards of customer service, which in turn helps to reinforce the confidence and trust between client and service provider.

Legal compliance
For facilities providers, the benefits of utilising GPRS technology to manage staff attendance are realised from both a business and health and safety point of view.

Firstly automating the time and attendance of remote workers removes the need to manually input timesheets and streamlines the entire payroll process. Calculating timesheets can be a highly painstaking task and can lead to errors and overpayment. Deploying a time and attendance solution across client sites not only saves time but ensures that data is captured accurately and documented in black and white, thereby removing disputes and grievances that employees may have about hours worked.

In the event of a client demanding proof of attendance to substantiate raised invoices, managers also have verifiable evidence to hand.

Secondly, through positive identification of remote workers contractors can guarantee that the right people with the correct qualifications are in the right place, at the right time. This not only improves overall service provided to clients through Service Level Agreements but safeguards the wellbeing of employees should there be an accident or emergency on site. In the event of an emergency situation occurring employers can gain comfort from the fact that time and attendance systems can automatically generate an evacuation report which verifies in seconds the identity of workers who were on site at the precise time of the emergency,

As well as assisting with the general health and safety of workers, time and attendance systems also ensure that facility service providers conform to EU Working Time Regulations. The regulations protect workers from working excessive hours by setting maximum requirements for working time (48 hour average week calculated over a four mouth reference period), rest periods and annual leave to prevent potential industrial accidents caused by fatigue. With severe penalties in place for non-compliance, employers now have a statutory obligation to keep records of their employee's working time. Subsequently it is vital that employers have some form of recording system in place to track the working hours of employees. Implementation of a reliable time and attendance system can help managers to identify those members of staff who are spending long hours at work. Managers can also receive alerts to notify them when workers are approaching the regulatory limit to prevent violations and download customised reports on employees' working hours to provide proof of adherence to working time regulations.

Increased productivity and better service delivery
The introduction of the Corporate Manslaughter Act 2007 and a tightening of associated Health and Safety Legislation, has made it increasingly important for organisations to review and update the arrangements they have in place to support lone workers.

The facilities industry is ideally suited to the latest time and attendance solutions due to the fact that service providers depend on their employees being in the right place at the right time to fulfil service contracts. The intention is not to create a ‘big brother' environment where employees feel their every move is being watched but one that ensures the safety of personnel and helps to boost overall business efficiency.

Managers of service providers need to understand that their workforce represents their largest controllable asset, and without having effective measures to confirm their attendance the well-being of employees can be compromised whilst service levels, customer satisfaction and, indeed, client retention can all be damaged as a result.

Time to act?
At a time when every business is seeking new ways to stay one step ahead of the competition, investing in the latest workforce management solutions can help facilities management providers demonstrate their commitment to efficient processes, add real value to existing customer contracts and help win new business. After all, prospective clients are more likely to enter into an SLA with contractors who can provide transparency from their service contracts and safeguard the welfare of on-site workers.

Time and attendance systems should also be seen as an effective tool to boost productivity and reward and incentivise staff. Gaining a full insight into the working practices of employees means managers are able to encourage and reward good timekeeping, attendance and performance, all of which goes some way to enhance a company’s overall reputation and encourages staff to turn up on time.

Although lone workers cannot be subject to constant supervision, it is still an employer’s duty to ensure their health and safety at work. Effective management of remote staff is very important in today’s competitive facilities management sector and the latest workforce management systems can help contractors to differentiate their service and gain a competitive edge.

Christian Berenger is Business Development Director at Auto Time Solutions

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