Post-it® notes, Desk Calendars, Excel and Staff Attendance Tracking App Full Comparison

Our struggle over the years to develop an attendance tracker that met everyone’s requirements

One of the first HR-related jobs I had, while I was still in the Finance Department of the organization I worked for, was maintaining the attendance tracking records.

I was terribly pleased with myself, having had this important new responsibility bestowed upon me just a few short months into my tenure. Little did I know that the whole department had watched my work and progress carefully, hoping that I was both bright enough to maintain the book and gullible enough to believe it was an honor.

The attendance tracking book was a large 3-ring binder. The pages were pre-printed with a template that divided each year into 3 segments, because most employees were in their first 7 years of service, and thus earned 3 weeks a year, accrued every 4 months. After 7 years you earned 4 weeks, and after 18 years, you got 5 weeks paid vacation per year.

Hell, in a 3 ring binder. Attendance tracking
Hell, in a 3 ring binder.

There were spaces to note individual days taken, so if someone took a week’s vacation, I’d enter the 5 dates they were out. That was to avoid any problems with inadvertently charging a holiday as a vacation day, and so on.

The attendance tracking book was in constant use. It stayed on my desk, and whenever anyone in the building wanted to take time off, they’d call me up and ask how much vacation or personal time they had available. Then they’d write a memo to their own boss requesting the time off. That boss would call me and ask if the person had enough time available to cover the request, because some employees didn’t bother to check with me before requesting time off.

When the department heads approved the requests, the memos came to our department for entry into the payroll, following which they were routed to me so I could keep the book updated. Of course, when payroll got the approved vacation request, someone would come over to my desk and check the book to make sure the person had enough time available –

God help the payroll clerk who issued vacation pay to someone who didn’t have the time available!

And of course, from time to time the comptroller would come to doublecheck some of the vacation pay, just to make sure the payroll clerks were doing their jobs right.

So I decided to start letting people know their updated entitlement once a year. I was surprised to learn that previous keepers of the book hadn’t done any such thing. It was only later that I learned why – after I’d done it for a few years, it somehow became an expected service. I’d get calls on the third of January demanding to know why I hadn’t sent out the vacation information memos yet. What started out as a goodwill gesture turned into an onerous task.

The problems started right away, and had mostly to do with each employee’s having his or her own different understanding of how the vacation system worked.

For example, we based everything on the employee’s original hire date – if it was February 17th, then their employment year for vacation purposes ran from February 17th until the following February 16th, and they’d earn a week’s vacation on June 17, October 17, and February 17. Many of our employees had worked previously at places which had worked on a calendar year basis, pro-rating that first year’s earnings. Some earned nothing at all until January 1 rolled around, and then they’d start earning paid vacation time. Very frustrating, yes, especially if you were hired on, say, February 17. Laws in the US don’t require employers to give paid vacation at all, though, and those that do aren’t bound by any standards of fairness, logic, or common sense.

We’re All Working With the Same Calendar – How Many Days Does Your April Have?

My first real run-in was with Rose, the CFO’s secretary – that is, she worked for my boss’s boss.

Rose-1970s. Attendance tracking
Secretary, 1970s.

She had no direct power, but if you’ve ever worked in an organization where individual executives have dedicated secretaries, you know how influential they can be. I had sent out my memos to the staff listing their vacation balances. I’d made a form memo and written the figures in by hand, but worked very hard to make sure everything was accurate. Several people stopped by to go over the figures and if they had different figures than I reported, it was usually because they’d forgotten to write down a day they’d taken off. When I showed them our records, they corrected their records. Most were happy that we were trying to be proactive and sending out the memos, which helped them plan their time off.

Not Rose.

Despite the fact that she was the CFO’s secretary, she was an absolute stranger to anything to do with numbers – and that included dates.

Her particular system was on her desk calendar – a mind-numbing system of ticks and asterisks and other assorted symbols, and when she got my memo, what they told her was that I was trying to cheat her out of vacation time that was rightfully hers. So she picked up her desk calendar and hauled it down to where I worked and proceeded to berate me – out in the open and in front of my co-workers – for trying to cheat her out of her vacation time.

The problem was that Rose’s system depended on there being four weeks in a month. It didn’t account for the two or three extra days every month except February has. With something like 15 years of service, she was entitled to 4 weeks’ vacation a year – one week for every 3 months. Now, she’d figured out that that works out to 1 2/3  days per month, and so she kept a running balance and added 1 2/3 days to it every fourth Friday. Naturally, she was crediting herself with 16 2/3 vacation days a year with her system, and when my memo said she’d actually accrued somewhat less than what she thought she’d earned, she saw red.

I tried hard, and attempted several different explanations, but to no avail. Rose was the kind of person who, once she’s made up her mind about something, will not change it. Especially when I was trying to tell her she was wrong in front of a department full of people she considered inferior to her, since she worked for the CFO. After ten minutes or so of increasing frustration on both our parts, she stormed out of the department, literally shrieking that I was trying to cheat her.

About five minutes later, the expected call from her boss – the CFO – came through.

Where she was lost when it came to such calculations, though, he was sharp as a tack, and it took perhaps a minute to explain it to him. From then on, she never challenged my work.

Symphonic Synchronicity

When I got promoted out of Finance to become head of Operations, I couldn’t leave that attendance tracking book behind – it was part of the promotion deal. I got the prestige and additional money of being a department head, but I had to bring the book with me. Which proves that for every silver lining, there’s a cloud.

When the time came to start exploring the new digital technology, I got the job of evaluating people’s needs and deciding what computers they needed. Just to give you an idea of the quality of computing we had, I was striking deals with the local store for discounts on three 286s at a time.

We had no networks, and only a handful of people had access to the World Wide Web via telephone modems, so we could email each other, but there was no such thing as emailing everyone in the organization.

What there was, in addition to solitaire and Jezzball, was office productivity software. The most popular spreadsheet of the time was something called Symphony, and the database management system of choice was called dBase3.

Symphony advert. Attendance tracking
Symphony advert.
Lotus Symphony. Attendance tracking
Lotus Symphony.

I quickly saw the advantage of dBase3 for a host of human resources issues, including paid time off tracking. I learned what I could on my own, and then took a course to learn more. When I was ready, I started writing an application. The problem was, there were lots of different circumstances that had to be addressed, and for the system to work well, it had to address them all. For example, the system had to know how many vacation days a person earned in a year, so I had to write a routine for the system to calculate a person’s length of service. I had to figure out how to let the system recognize holidays, as well as let the operator – me – identify the kind of time off a person took.

Screenshot of Dbase III Plus. Attendance tracking
Screenshot of Dbase III Plus.

This was, for me, a fascinating exercise, but it also introduced me to the computer’s uncanny ability to suck every last minute out of the day. Important work was falling by the wayside. At the same time, I learned that other staffers in other departments were trying to set up time-off tracking systems for themselves using Symphony. They wanted systems that were as automated as possible, that would automatically update and calculate their time earned, identify the time taken, and display the balance of time available. And like me, they were finding that a good system was very complex and, because they were trying to maintain their records as flat files, took a significant amount of time to maintain. And as we maintained our systems, we encountered more questions and problems.

Let’s Just Piggyback on the Payroll System!

We used a third-party service to prepare our weekly payroll, and when it came out with time-off tracking, we were excited, to say the least. The company was one of the pioneers of automated payroll systems, so if anyone could get a grip on tracking time off, it had to be them. Its problem was that it was limited by its efforts to be all things to all clients. The result was that it wound up not nearly living up to even the most basic of expectations. For example, it assumed that we worked on a calendar-year basis for accruing time-off earnings, instead of a hiredate basis. It could add a week to everyone’s vacation earnings across the board on dates we set, but it couldn’t automatically accrue new vacation earnings on people’s anniversary dates, or four month intervals therefrom. I recall the rep asking why we didn’t just switch to an annual accounting. “Because we have union contracts, and they say we accrue based on date of hire.”

We’d established a practice of long standing that a person could take as little as a quarter-day in vacation time. We frowned on it, and preferred that they take at least half a day, but we did permit the occasional quarter-day. The payroll service, though, couldn’t recognize any time-off in fractions of less than half-a-day.

Another drawback with using the payroll system was that like my vacation book, there was only one copy of the payroll register. If someone wanted to find out their balance, they’d have had to ask someone in the payroll section to look at the most recent payroll register to get the information. This centralized record-keeping would have been a serious drag on the payroll clerks’ time, which was already stretched pretty thin.

After we analyzed the payroll service’s capabilities and limitations, we decided against using them to track time off.

Where’s Fred? We’ve Got a Deadline to Meet!

Of course, my attendance tracking book and subsequent home-made applications really did one thing – they tracked individual employees’ time-off use and entitlements. And whether I was making entries in the book or entering data in my dBase3 system (or tweaking the system to accommodate all the various permutations in our policy and people’s use of their time), it was very time-consuming even to accomplish those basic tasks.

It didn’t happen often, but every now and then I’d get a call from a department head asking if so-and-so had scheduled vacation. This was before cellphones: “I tried calling Fred at home and there’s no answer.” So I’d check the book or my system, or more likely, check the most recent payroll to see if the person had received vacation pay, because I generally made my entries a week or so after the fact, even with my dBase3 app. Department heads were responsible for keeping track of their own staff, but every now and then, something fell through the cracks.

I decided to quit adding to and tweaking the dBase3 app while I was marginally ahead.

While it tracked time-off entitlements pretty well, it still had several drawbacks.

For example, it wasn’t real-time in any sense of the term, because I always made my entries after the payroll was prepared – because that’s when I’d get the vacation memos and my copy of the payroll register. We weren’t networked, so there was no way anyone else could access my system. They could call or visit me in my office, and get specific questions answered, but they never had the opportunity just to browse the data or forecast upcoming attendance – individual department heads had to do that themselves, wasting more time. However, once I had my dBase3 app up and running, when I sent out the time-off updates to individual employees, I’d send them all to the department head for distribution to department staff together with a summary report which immediately met with widespread acclaim, even if there were a few glitches.

The Contemporary Attendance Tracker

Today’s digital applications are really a misnomer because they don’t simply track time off, they’re comprehensive tools that help good managers manage the time in their firms. In the process, they also save everyone involved a great deal of time, freeing them up for more important jobs.

HR Software. Simplified. Attendance tracking
Attendance tracking HR Software. Simplified.

For example, in firms where time-off management systems are used, employees don’t have to call anyone and ask for an update of their time, which means that nobody has to stop what they’re doing, find the attendance tracking book and look up the employee’s information. It also eliminates the inevitable arguments over how much time a person really has. Don’t misunderstand – if there’s a problem, it has to be fixed, but arguing with the clerk who reports the information doesn’t solve anything. Instead, employees simply access the company’s intranet, navigate to the time management system and look at the page containing their own data.

If they want to request time off, it’s usually a matter of clicking a few buttons and selecting a few dates from a calendar. If they haven’t got sufficient time available, the system notifies them. If they do, the system packages their request and ships it to their department head or other supervisor. The manager checks the request against the department’s calendar to see the department’s staffing status during the time in question and then either approves or denies the request.

If denied, the request is returned to the employee with an explanation. If approved, it is sent to payroll, which prepares the appropriate vacation pay for the period. In addition, the employee’s own vacation earnings are updated.

One of the beauties of modern systems is that if they’re part of a company-wide system, they can be integrated with other scheduling.

For example, when a meeting is planned, the system can be employed to send memos to all invited participants.

CakeHR - dashboard view. Attendance tracking
CakeHR – dashboard view.

It’ll also report back to the meeting planner which employees won’t be available to attend because they’re scheduled to be out of the office that day. Likewise, at any time, a manager can access a calendar of any current or future time period and examine anticipated attendance, based on approved time-off requests. More sophisticated systems permit managers to block off particular dates or weeks so that nobody can take vacation then – for example, the last few weeks before a big project’s deadline.

The behind-the-scenes capabilities of the modern HR management systems are also far superior to my attendance tracking book, the spreadsheets some people kept, the tickmarks on calendars, the payroll-based system, and the myriad other systems people set up to try to keep track of their time-off entitlements. Any number of special conditions and circumstances can be set up. For example, in the case of my former employer, they can be set up to accrue employees vacation earnings every four months based on hire date for the first seven years, and then every three months, and so on. If we’d ever had a rule requiring employees to forfeit unused vacation time, that rule could easily have been implemented.

And with everybody in the organization having access to their own time-off records through the company intranet, the attendance tracking book could be retired for good and whoever was in charge of it would have found himself or herself with a lot of time to take on more meaningful tasks.


Written By

Dale Marshall

Human Resources Manager.