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Xora service turns cell phones into timecards

Xora has teamed up with Nextel on a service that lets a company's employees use their cell phones like timecards to punch in and out of work. One company says the service has helped it lower costs and keep track of workers, but some worry that it is too intrusive.

Vendors in the wireless business often think big, honing their wares for big enterprises with deep pockets that want mobile access to all applications. However, that approach can ignore important markets and, more important, real business needs. One company has found early success by thinking small and specific.

Xora Inc., a Mountain View, Calif., wireless startup, began with a typical approach: a wireless platform for connecting field service and sales force employees to back-end systems on the road. Xora found that many competitors were pitching the same idea, so it began to look for more specific applications and more available markets.

Xora developed an application that allows companies to automate their timecard process, enabling employees to use mobile phones to sign in and out. Taking it a step further, Xora combined the application with global positioning satellite (GPS) information, so employers could not only tell when employees are on the clock, but also where they are.

Wireless carrier Nextel Communications Inc. took an interest in the application and now refers customers to Xora for the $11.99 per user, per month hosted service.

"There is a huge, untapped demand from people who have small-to-medium sized businesses: ice and beer distributors, Sheetrock installers, pest control, security guards," said Mark Springfield, director of marketing at Xora.

Stephen Drake, a program manager with Framingham, Mass.-based research firm International Data Corp., said that this service is a great way for small businesses to easily get their feet wet with mobility with little up-front investment.

Debra Carlson, office manager with Valley Heating, Air and Home Improvement Inc., in Carmichael, Calif., said that in the two months her company has been using the Xora service, it has already saved money and increased productivity.

Prior to deploying the service, employees punched timecards to clock in and out. The company relied on employees to record their times accurately. The office staff spent a significant amount of time entering all that data into the payroll system.

Now, employees clock in by pressing a button on their phone. That data goes directly from an employee's phone to a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that tracks hours and calculates compensation.

In addition, she said, the company is saving money on its payroll expenses. With the old timecard system, many employees were signing out at 4:00, but once the company went to the mobile system, many of those same employees' timecards showed that they were leaving earlier, at 3:45 or 3:50. Over the course of a week, those minutes add up, saving the company money, she said.

Perhaps the most important factor in Valley Heating, Air and Home Improvement's decision to look for a wireless application was the increase in the cost of workers' compensation insurance. Since Xora's system tracks an employee's location, the company now has an accurate record of the amount of time a worker spends at a job site. If an injury occurs, Carlson can check the location records to make sure that an employee was at the site at the time the injury occurred. That helps to curb fraudulent claims. As a result, she said, the company's insurance premiums have come down.

But the employees' adjustment to the system has not been smooth. She said that, during the first few weeks of use, many employees complained that the service was too intrusive. Others signed in when they were not at work or at the job site, which ultimately lead to some employees being fired while others quit because they didn't like the system, Carlson said.

After two months, much of the staff has accepted the system. Carlson said it was instrumental in weeding out employees that were not productive.

Xora's Springfield and IDC's Drake agree that employee acceptance of such systems may be problematic. Springfield said that he has seen a certain level of employee apprehension about his system. Drake agrees. "There certainly may be some level of employee push-back," Drake said.

Employees may find positives in the service as well, Drake added. If there is a dispute about hours or location, then the employee can point to records that detail when he was on the job and where he was.


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