Smart tracking

Features - Business Management

WIth GPS-based software, Fine Earth Landscape tracks emplyee locations and work hours - and saves big (like $40,000 big) on labor costs.

July 12, 2010
Julie Collins

The employees of Fine Earth Landscape, an installation and maintenance firm in the Washington, D.C., area, are allowed to stop for 15 minutes on the way to the jobsite each morning to grab coffee or lunch for the day.

But company co-owner Bernie Mihm noticed some employees were taking advantage of the perk, driving miles out of the way or hanging out for half an hour or more before heading to the jobsite.

“We pay for 15 minutes per employee per day, but we don’t want to pay more than that,” Mihm says.

So he decided to do something about it using GPS-based software that allows him to track the location, work hours and even driving speeds of his crews at any given time. And it works.

In fact, Mihm estimates Fine Earth Landscape is saving around $40,000 a year in labor costs as a result of the tracking system.

Trial and Error
Finding the right setup for his company involved a bit of trial and error, Mihm says. The first GPS solution Mihm tried was installed directly in company trucks – and it proved problematic from the start. A mechanic had to pull each data recorder out of the truck and hook it up to a computer to access the data. Soon, recorders started breaking. “They ended up being such a pain we just tossed them,” Mihm says.

That’s when he heard about TeleNav, a mobile resource management company with a variety of tracking options. After trying one, which employees figured out how to switch off, Mihm settled on TeleNav Track Light, a less expensive system that cannot be disabled. And he’s pleased with the results.

“It has been excellent,” Mihm says. “We can tell when the crews are stopping at the store, how long they stop, whether it’s on the way to the job. A few crews liked to go to a certain restaurant half an hour out of the way, but now they don’t because we can track where they are.”

The system also helps ensure employees are only being compensated for hours they actually work. During the summer, Fine Earth Landscape employees log 10- to 12-hour days, and when they finish there isn’t anyone to clock them out. “It’s just an honor system where they fill out the report and say when they got back to the yard, but there’s nobody to check,” Mihm says. 

With the GPS-based software, Mihm can tell when employees actually stop at the yard to clock out and can check those times against what they’re writing down. For instance, when one former foreman clocked out at 6:30 p.m., but the TeleNav system showed he had been at the yard at 5 p.m. and was already home when he said he clocked out.
Mihm had data to confront the employee with right away. In addition, on multiple-day projects where employees meet directly at the job with their own vehicles after the first day, Mihm can make certain they actually arrive by 7 a.m.

Such tracking has cut down on the amount of overtime unnecessarily paid to employees. Plus, it helps designers and managers who need to know where a crew is located in order to meet up with them. Instead of struggling to contact a foreman who’s busy at a worksite, the designer or manager can look up the location on the system and head out to meet the crew.

No Big Brother
Mihm says this isn’t a secretive way to spy on employees. “We told them when we got it exactly what was going to happen. We were very upfront. After we caught a few people driving out of their way or clocking out too late, we’ve had very few problems since then,” he says. “It helps keep employees honest. They’re honest people to begin with, but I think it’s extra incentive.”

He says the GPS tracking software also supports the company’s emphasis on quality and safety. Quality increases when employees spend time on work, not long breaks. And the system also allows Mihm to track the speeds employees are driving, so he knows if they are driving faster than they should be in work vehicles.

How it Works 
All 15 of Mihm’s crews have Sprint/Nextel radios equipped with the TeleNav software. To access information on his vehicles, Mihm logs onto a web-based portal TeleNav provides. He also can have reports e-mailed to him on a regular basis. Managers can set up alerts that notify them if an employee is stopped in one spot for too long or when they cross in and out of the borders of a customer’s site.

Mihm estimates that at $20 a month per crew, it costs about $3,600 a year to outfit his company with GPS tracking – about one hour of over time for one crew member.

That’s why, even when the company looked to cut costs last year, Mihm didn’t even think about getting rid of the GPS. “There was no way we were going to cut that because it more than makes up for the cost we invest in it,” Mihm says.

The author is a freelance writer based in Lincoln, Ill.