If your business has mobile employees, you know the management challenges they pose. They head out in the morning, spend all day at customer sites, or delivering your goods or services, then clock out at the end of the day. If they go straight to the customer site, you may not see them at all. Wouldn't it be nice to know precisely where they are throughout the course of the workday?

You can. Mobile technology such as Xora uses mobile phones' GPS system to track employees' locations so that dispatchers and supervisors back at the office can see exactly where they are. The application includes a time clock, so employees can log in and out of work directly on the phone, instead of having to submit a paper time sheet or fill out an online form, and since the phone records their location when they clock in and out, you can tell if someone is trying to log in from home. Information about hours worked integrates directly into payroll software, saving a lot of administrative time, and also into billing software, for faster more accurate billing of customers.

Tracking software can create a lot of efficiencies. 'If a job comes up, and there are 30 people out in the field, the dispatcher can decide who to send based on who's closest,' says Michael Berger, director of marketing at Xora. 'You save on fuel, employees use their time most efficiently, and the customer gets faster service.' The software can also trigger an e-mail or other notification when an employee passes a certain point, which can also lead to efficiencies, for instance by warning the shipping manager at a customer location that a delivery is about to arrive.

Big help or Big Brother

How might employees feel about being tracked? 'Some fraction of your employees will resent the system,' predicts Rick Brenner, principal of Chaco Canyon Consulting, an expert in teamwork, conflict, and workplace politics. 'Employees who resent the tracking will probably be clever enough not to complain about it much. They'll simply start looking for alternative employment. When that happens, the best employees are likeliest to find other jobs. Consequently, the tracking system has the effect of degrading the work force.'

Though the technology is new and its legal ramifications are unclear, there are some steps you can take to protect your company's legal standing if you decide to track employees, according to employment law firm Tarlow, Breed, Hart & Rodgers, P.C. For one thing, the company should supply the mobile phones to employees, not impose tracking on equipment they own. For another, employees should be clearly notified that they're being tracked, and should give their consent for that tracking in writing. Finally, employees should be given the option to turn off tracking during their break times and off hours.

Leveling the field

Concerns about how employees would react led R&J Construction to proceed with caution when it introduced Xora in February 2007. For the first month, R&J construction workers had the choice to enter their time using Xora, or using paper forms as they always had, recalls Paula Wiens, controller at R&J.

The firm had originally planned for a longer transition period, but 'we didn't need it,' she says. Though employees were initially concerned that managers back at the office might watch their every move, they soon learned that wasn't the case. And then the unexpected happened: R&J discovered tracking employees was actually good for morale.

'It leveled the playing field,' Wiens explains. 'In the past, we've had some workers accuse other workers of leaving early or coming in late, but there was no easy way to evaluate these claims,' she says. 'Once we had the GPS in hand, we could verify what had really happened.'

It also protected employees in many situations. 'If a customer called and said ‘Your plumber billed me for four hours, but he wasn't here for hours,' we could use our GPS data to show that he had also made trips to the plumbing supply store to pick up materials,' Wiens says.

And in one case, using Xora helped an employee defend against a lawsuit. 'This employee was in a traffic accident,' she says. 'The person he hit tried to claim that he had been speeding. Using our tracking data, we were able to tell that just a few minutes before the accident he'd been going only 15 miles an hour, because he was driving in heavy commuter traffic. And we were able to provide substantiation.'