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HR practices revisited

Time registration and management

Time registration and management are almost naturally part of the ‘control paradigm’ and as a consequence of that it takes away people’s ownership and autonomy over their own time and what they do where and when. It is meant to push everyone into a ‘nine to five’ straitjacket, possibly with some degrees of freedom in the form of sliding hours and variable schedules. As time and place independent work is becoming more common, you see that the classic time clock is being replaced by other control systems. We ask these four questions:

  • What practices of time management are mainly used today in organizations?
  • What is the ‘theory in use’, the deep-seated (and perhaps unconscious) principles, assumptions and values behind it?
  • What are the consequences for the individual and the organization, for performance, flexibility and innovative power (generativity)?
  • What can you do differently and how will this benefit the ‘generative capacity’ of the organization and the ownership of all employees?

Current Practices?

The following practices are (still) being used :

  • The physical time clock where employees ‘check in’ into the building (and where the time and access control are often linked)
  • Logging the times at which an employee is signed in or out on a machine, computer, software, etc …
  • The information from time registration is used to determine leave, compensation leave, etc., but it is often also used to sanction people by for instance reducing wages because people arrived late for work
  • Time tracking is also used for overtime pay (if people are entitled to it)
  • Sometimes the systems are also purely intended for individuals to ‘track’ their own time use in order to form an idea of ​​the ‘time wasters’ and then do something about it. That can be shared with the manager or not. In principle, that is not about ‘being on time’.
  • Worktime registration (so not the attendance check) is often also used to calculate the cost price of a project or to determine how much time can be invoiced internally or externally.
  • A specific form of time control exists in consulting firms that work with ‘objectives’ in terms of ‘billable hours’. In other words, consultants must be able to actually bill a predetermined percentage of their working time to external clients at the end of the month. This specific form of time monitoring also has very specific consequences such as being eligible for promotion.
What stands out here?
  • The higher one is in the hierarchy, the less one will be checked on working time
  • You can see that systems are as well being introduced as being abolished and even reintroduced if they were abolished
  • Often ‘fairness’ is used as an argument to keep track of time (even if it is difficult to explain why blue colar workers should log in and white collars and management should not)
  • It is mostly an emotional debate where the key question : “is it making our organization perform better” is very absent.

What is the Theory in Use here?

The theory in use behind a decision to ‘check people’s working time’ and linking this to sanctions (loss of wages, for example) is routed in the initial transactional character of work during the industrial revolution. “You work for me for an hour, and then you get paid and so if you arrive late I deduct that from your pay. It was not about knowledge, expertise and innovation… but just about ‘do what I ask you to do’. The properties of the underlying paradigm are quite clear:

  • It’s between two parties who basically distrust each other and use then all kinds of mechanisms to ‘check’ each other
  • Work is a purely transactional activity: exchange of time for wages and with two parties who will try to take advantage or the other (steal time, not pay for performed overtime, etc…) That idea is also behind the ruling of the European court. It is all about collecting objective evidence in case of a dispute between the two parties (then I can prove that I am entitled to overtime, or I can prove that the sanction against this employee is justified, etc …)
  • Work is reduced to ‘time and presence’ at work and nobody is asking what the added value of that presence is or if the ‘present worker’ is actually contributing to the sustainable development of the organization. And possible counterproductive effects are totally ignored.
  • The assumption exists that ‘lower grade employees’ are less trustworthy and the lower people are paid, the more they have to be ‘spied upon’ (although those are exactly the people who have the least opportunity to hurt the organization with serious fraud).
  • The one bringing in money is the owner, although you could argue that today ‘knowledge, creativity, innovative thinking’ is at least as important. But that is reduced to ‘time’ that is traded for ‘wages’. And so the employee is not a ‘partner’ in a collective endeavor with a shared ambition.
  • People come to work out of ‘extrinsic motivation’ (money, security, …) and not because they are interested in contributing to the ambitions or the future of the organization.
  • There is a kind of ‘crappy people’ theory behind it, whereby people who arrive late are thieves, not motivated, etc … while that being late can of course also be the first signs of burnout and caused by the organizational context and culture.

And what is the impact ?

Much will depend on how the registration and control is applied on the ground and what ‘consequences’ are attached to the measurement. Communication around this can also make a big difference in terms of impact and of course it is also 1 element in an ‘organizational culture’ and so it could be that such a registration actually has no effect on the intrinsic (autonomous) motivation of people. But if perceived as a ‘means of coercion’, a big stick, it will have counterproductive consequences. A few specific elements:

What is trending on HR websites ?

According to the European Court of Justice, the absence of a time registration system leads to the impossibility to record, in an objective and trustworthy way, how many hours the employee has worked and when exactly. Moreover, it makes it impossible to determine how much overtime the employee has performed and, the fact that employers are not obliged to introduce such a system, finally also leads to insufficient protection for the employees (

Attendance management is the process of preventing employee time theft by tracking employee working hourslogin timedeparturesbreaks, and time off. Organizations use a number of methods, from punching cards and spreadsheets to automated attendance management systems and biometric devices to manage employee attendance. (

Source :
Bron :

  • People will feel ‘spied on’ and will come up with all kinds of tricks to have the rigg the system. For example: first login, start up the computer and then go to the toilet to shave or only then park your car or put on your work clothes.
  • The extrensic motivation (and transactional thinking) will take over from possibly the initial intrinsic motivation to contribute to a common project.
  • It becomes part of an escallation where everything becomes more transactional… (if you… then I…)
  • People who are treated like ‘kids’ will start to behave like kids.
  • It will be more difficult to reconcile work with private or family obligations (slipping away at work to pick up the sick child from school and then writing that report in the evening …)
  • It takes the flexibility out of the system completely, people start to watch the clock. If a customer comes up with an urgent problem just before closing time (and clock-out time), an employee wil probably think twice before investing his ‘own time’ for his job, certainly if he was just ‘punished’ for being late five minutes the other day.
  • It completely takes the focus away from the question “what am I doing here?”, “What do I want to achieve and what contribution do I want to make?”
  • The autonomy, the ownership of the professional to fill in his day and tasks is gone (outside the boundaries of sliding starting hours)
  • This type of control and structure doesn’t work well in a context where we need emerging innovations and creative spurs. You won’t get up in the middle of the night to capture that fantastic idea you had, if you know that in the morning there is a watchdog checking if you were in the company on time.

Billability objectives have very specific consequences

Everything that is not ‘billable’ comes under pressure:

  • Both the manager and the consultant themselves will tend to drop anything that is not urgent (but perhaps very important) when there is ‘billable work’
  • Time for internal consultation, intervision, knowledge exchange between consultants, walking with an experienced consultant, etc … will come under pressure
  • The consultant’s own development will be squeezed in when and if there is nothing billable to do.
  • It prevents experienced consultants from investing in the coaching, knowledge sharing, etc … with younger consultants precisely because their expert time can be almost be used somewhere in a billable project and moreover at ‘higher consulting fees’
  • Consultants will focus very much on themselves, their own customers and therefore assisting colleagues, helping others, etc … is at the expense of their own billable hours (and so people are punished for that)
  • The quality of the consulting or facilitation work delivered often also suffers because study work, preparation, reflection time, etc … are often not billable (or only limited) and so there is a great temptation to prepare the three-day training as briefly as possible. (because preparation time is often included in the training fee)
  • Is demotivating for people who want to ‘learn’, because they will often fall back on routine consulting work that they already know well, because that is billable and if they gain experience in domains where they are not yet competent, it will often be not or not fully billable.

What can you do differently?

The simple answer is: stop doing it! There are many indications that getting rid of ‘time control systems’ increases productivity (exactly the opposite of what most people think) and that people do not abuse that responsibility. Of course, this does not mean that one is not responsible for what one does and whether one contributes to the organization. So in fact it is mainly a matter of converting the attention on TIME to attention for CONTRIBUTION to the further development of the organization. And doing that in a way that supports mutual trust, sense of belonging and motivation for the shared ambition in the organisation. This can be done in many ways.

A short (not exhaustive) list :

  • Start a dialogic process with all stakeholders (and at least all employees of the organization) to formulate a very ‘inviting’ and shared ambition for the organization (generative image). That will motivate people to do the right thing, without being monitored and without being restrained. It will develop a sense of belonging and strengthen the mutual social responsibility of all members of the club.
  • Also develop the ‘sense of belonging’ outside of the dialogue, by giving people plenty of room for initiative, but also by having professionals in teams and networks work together a lot. In this way the ‘transactional aspects of work’ will be overruled by the passion to work on the common project. If people are convinced that others are in there with ‘whole their heart’ it will be also easier for them to engage fully.
  • Create a culture of trust and openness. So, people who have personal or family issues will not try to ‘hide it’ for the system (and try to get around the time registration and control) but use their colleagues and manager as ‘social network’ to get help and support.
  • Develop collective forms of performance management in which teams regularly make a substantive evaluation of how they contribute to the organization as a team and also give each other feedback on how they have experienced each other’s contribution in the past period (and then everything is mapped out, not just performance but also: helping each other, investing in own development, sharing knowledge and information, etc …)

Dan the world (in this case the organization) is a different place :

  • We are accountable to each other and you get much less of a ‘us ↔ them’ situation
  • It is not the ’employer’ who controls the ’employee’
  • It is based on trust and openness to each other (things can be shared and talked about) instead of mistrust and attempts to cover things up (for example, by logging on first and then shaving)
  • Time (and place) in and of itself becomes irrelevant, which gives much more individual autonomy and ownership and shifts the focus to ‘contribution to the project’.

More Info

These are a few links with articles and research available on the internet. There are of course also good reasons to defend time tracking or worktime control. But, we do notice that those arguments often belong more to the contain / control paradigm

  1. Beckers,D. Kompier,M. Kecklund,G. & Härmä,M., (2012). Worktime control: theoretical conceptualization, current empirical knowledge, and research agenda. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health 38(4):291-7 LINK
  2. Mc.Kinsey., (2013). Making time management the organization’s priority LINK

Organization Development