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Time Clocks: How to Choose the Right One for You

Updated Feb 06, 2024

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Max Freedman
Business Operations Insider and Senior Analyst at businessnewsdaily.com
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Tracking employee time and attendance is an often-overlooked business process. While it’s not glamorous, it’s important to keep track of when your employees work to ensure continuous business operations and proper pay calculations. 

As the number of available time and attendance solutions grows, there’s no shortage of time clock options for your business. You can select either a stand-alone time clock or a time and attendance system that includes time clock features. It depends largely on your business and what you feel makes the most sense for monitoring your employees’ work hours. 

Read on for help in determining which time clock solution makes the most sense for your company. 

Editor’s note: Looking for the right time and attendance system for your business? Fill out the below questionnaire to have our vendor partners contact you about your needs.

How to choose the right time clock

You want a time clock system that makes it easier for you and your employees to track time and attendance. When you’re shopping for a solution, follow these tips: 

Assess your budget.

Some time clock systems require a high one-time payment, while others, such as software systems that charge per employee, incur monthly costs instead. If you’re installing new physical infrastructure for employees to clock in and out as well as new time clock software, you’ll need to budget for both. Get quotes from a variety of vendors to see which solutions are within your financial means.

Consider the size of your business.

How many employees will be clocking in each day? The more team members you have, the more challenging it becomes to manage a punch card system and manually enter time data. In that case, you’ll want to choose a more modern, digital solution that automatically connects time and attendance information with your payroll program.

Identify options that work for your business location.

Do your employees work together in person from the same place every day, or does some or all of your team work remotely? If you have a hybrid team, you may need a system that allows multiple sign-in options. You can often find time clocks that combine two or more types of sign-in methods that suit your workforce’s needs. For instance, some biometric time clocks require in-office sign-in with a fingerprint but allow remote employees to clock in with a PIN online.

Look for a user-friendly system.

There’s always a learning curve when you’re implementing new solutions, but clocking in and out each day shouldn’t take more than a minute. It’s not helpful if your system experiences regular glitches and your HR team has to manually enter time and attendance data. If less-tech-savvy employees need help clocking in every time, it’s counterproductive. As you compare options from different vendors, make sure to read online customer reviews for insight into each platform’s usability before you commit to any of them. 

Types of time clocks

Here are some types of time clocks and their benefits and disadvantages.

Punch card 

The punch card is the original time clock, and some businesses still use it.

  • How it works: Employees place a timecard into a punch clock, which stamps the time onto it to indicate when they started or ended the workday. A manager then manually records the time stamps to process payroll.
  • Pros: The main draw of traditional time clocks is their simplicity — it doesn’t take high tech to insert a timecard into the punch clock.
  • Cons: These stand-alone punch clocks do not connect to cloud-based time and attendance systems. Because they aren’t digital, you must manually input the times on the punch cards into your payroll system, which is time-consuming and increases the chance of errors.
  • Pricing: Punch card systems rarely cost more than $250.

Magnetic swipe, barcode and RFID

These time clocks rely on credentials that an employee carries with them.

  • How it works: With magnetic swipe time clocks, employees carry a badge card with a magnetic stripe they swipe to clock in. With barcode clocks, employees scan the card’s barcode to record when they clock in and out. Some card readers use RFID (radio-frequency identification), allowing employees to clock in by tapping their card or key fob on or near the scanner.
  • Pros: Badge cards are convenient for employees to carry around their necks or in their wallets. A benefit of RFID time clocks, in particular, is that they often use proximity cards. In some cases, the clocks can read these cards from up to 10 feet away.
  • Cons: A disadvantage of this type of time clock is that employees could lose their credential cards, accidentally leave them at home or have them stolen. Also, some forms of credentials, such as magnetic stripes, wear out over time and need to be replaced.
  • Pricing: Some RFID time clocks cost just over $100, whereas magnetic swipe time clocks can cost more than $300.

PIN/password

Just as you probably enter a unique numerical code to access your smartphone, PIN/password time clocks pair employee time sheets with unique access codes.

  • How it works: These clocks feature a number pad through which employees enter a personal identification number (PIN) or personalized password when they arrive and leave each day.
  • Pros: Many PIN clocks work with magnetic swipe or barcode cards for two-factor authentication, providing an added layer of security.
  • Cons: A problem arises when an employee loses or forgets their credentials. There’s also the potential for tampering; for example, employees might ask co-workers to input their PIN for them if they’re going to arrive to work late or even not show up at all. This is often called “buddy punching.”
  • Pricing: You can get a PIN or password time clock for about $150 to $250. More expensive options, such as biometric time clocks, often include PIN and password entry options as well.

Biometric

Biometric time clocks are among the most technologically advanced time and attendance tools available.

  • How it works: Many of these time clocks use USB fingerprint readers to scan employees as they arrive at or leave work. There are also more sophisticated options than fingerprint scanners, such as facial recognition and iris scanners.
  • Pros: Biometric time clocks and USB fingerprint readers are good for businesses with insufficient staff or technology to monitor their time and attendance. They are most popular with companies that are concerned about buddy punching, since one colleague can’t clock in for another if the method is biometric-based. Buddy punching costs U.S. employers hundreds of millions of dollars in time theft. Biometric time clocks usually rely on employee fingerprints, so there’s little or no chance of fraud.
  • Cons: The main disadvantage of biometric time clocks is the varying quality of the scanners. Cheaper models may not pick up the person’s biometrics properly, resulting in unwarranted entry denials. Fingerprint scanners need to be cleaned frequently to keep scans functional and hygienic. When these time clocks fail, it can be a hindrance to businesses, as the technology needs to be fixed or cleaned, both of which take time. Also, companies need to take extra precautions to ensure employee fingerprints or other biometric data remain secure.
  • Pricing: Biometric time clocks typically cost a few hundred dollars, though you can find basic fingerprint-only options for as low as $50. However, the price can climb higher than $1,000, depending on the biometric being used and the type of connectivity you require.

“It’s pretty tough to circumvent these systems, but they also come with drawbacks, especially if they aren’t super accurate or take your employees a few minutes to clock in and out,” said Ravi Dehar, a marketing consultant.

FYIDid you know

You must follow a number of laws governing how you collect and store employee biometrics. Consult your legal team before you move forward with this type of timekeeping system.

Online/mobile 

Many employers today are ditching wall-mounted time clocks in favor of systems that allow employees to clock in and out with their computers or smartphones.

  • How it works: With most time and attendance systems currently on the market, employees record when they arrive and leave within an online system that’s accessible from a variety of devices. These programs can also help enforce your paid time-off policy, assist with scheduling and handle other time-related tasks. Many of these systems integrate with popular payroll services, too, which helps prevent errors in the transfer of time and attendance data to your payroll system.
  • Pros: Online and mobile time clocks are useful for remote employees who don’t have access to the company’s on-site time clock device. There are benefits for employers, too: Some time clock apps include geofencing technology that records an employee’s location when they punch in and out. This helps ensure employees are working from where they should be.
  • Cons: A potential downside of this easy-to-use and timesaving option is time theft. When employees submit their own daily time records online, it becomes easier to steal a few minutes each day. Again, some companies might not care if an employee punches out at 4:57 p.m. and calls it 5 p.m. if they’re performing well. For employers that are worried about a few minutes here and there, though, it might take a little extra effort to verify the time that employees are putting into the job when they’re using a mobile or online time clock, especially if those workers are remote.
  • Pricing: Online and mobile time clock companies often charge per user per month. The good news is that these fees can be incredibly low — often as little as $3.50 per employee per month. For businesses with only one or two employees, it may even be free. If you want extra features, though, you might wind up spending double digits a month per employee. However, you won’t have to deal with much physical hardware maintenance or setup. [Looking for a solution like this for your business? Check out our recommendations for the best time and attendance systems.]
TipTip

Cloud-based time and attendance systems are useful for retaining records. According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, an employer should retain at least three years of payroll records and at least two years of timecard data. “The easiest way to store this is, of course, digitally,” Dehar said. “As an added bonus, you’ll get timecard edit history, so you can see who made what edits in the event someone files a labor complaint.”

IVR

Interactive voice response (IVR) systems allow employees to punch in and out over the phone.

  • How it works: Workers call a preset number and follow several prompts to record their times. Some IVR systems allow you to designate a specific number from which the employee must call. If this is a landline number, you can ensure employees are working from where they’re supposed to be.
  • Pros: Because pretty much everyone carries a phone at all times, IVR time clocks enable clock-ins and clock-outs wherever, whenever.
  • Cons: These types of systems are still available, but they’ve fallen out of favor with the rise of mobile apps.
  • Pricing: Some time and attendance systems include IVR options in their monthly package rate. However, if you need to purchase a dedicated IVR system, you could be looking at a cost of hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Kiosk modes on tablets

Businesses can repurpose certain mobile devices, like tablets, as time clocks to save money.

  • How it works: Many applications allow you to run tablets (both Android tablets and iPads) in kiosk mode, which restricts them to single-app use. In this case, the app would be a time clock program. Some of these systems snap photos of the person clocking in and out to prevent buddy punching.
  • Pros: Only the tablet’s administrator can unlock the device to return it to its normal settings, so you can mount it near your office’s entrance and have it run only your time clock app. If you’re looking for the simplest solution, this is a good choice. It’s also a good option for field service teams; the shift leader can provide the tablet so everyone working on a job site can clock in and out.
  • Cons: The mobile device you use as a time clock won’t be available for other business needs while in kiosk mode. If you don’t have many tablets and you need to use other business apps on them frequently, a dedicated time clock might be better for you.
  • Pricing: You can find tablets suited for small business use for $100 or less. 

Access control

Some technology in this sector can work as both a time clock and an access control system.

  • How it works: When an employee uses their key card, password or biometric scan to enter a building, the system can log this time and use it as a time stamp. You can also establish an anti-passback control system, which requires employees to use credentials to exit a building. This serves as their clock-out. The system is often paired with a stand-alone time clock that’s used for meal or rest breaks.
  • Pros: Pairing access control with time and attendance lets your employees accomplish two tasks — secure building entry and time tracking — with one action. The anti-passback controls common in access control systems also prevent employee time theft and buddy punching.
  • Cons: If you don’t already have an access control system in place for your business, buying one just to get a time clock is unnecessary. Otherwise, the only prominent disadvantage of access control systems might be their prices and complicated setup. However, affordable, user-friendly options exist.
  • Pricing: Access control systems can cost a minimum of $500 per entry point.
Did You Know?Did you know

Access control systems provide an extra layer of security for your business. They can restrict access to your entire business or to certain areas within your facilities.

The importance of time clocks

As mentioned above, each year, U.S. employers lose an exorbitant amount of money due to time theft. Much of this is due to employees stealing a few minutes each day, which can be prevented with a comprehensive time and attendance system. Biometric time clocks prevent buddy punching, and tools such as geofencing ensure team members can clock in only at the locations you allow. These mechanisms guarantee that you’ll pay staffers only for the time they actually work.

Along those lines, digital time clocks are also crucial for accurate and efficient payroll. With integrated time and attendance systems and payroll services, your employees’ time information syncs seamlessly with your payroll software for easy and error-free processing. You’ll exert much less effort processing payroll this way than if you were to do it manually, and there will be less opportunity for mistakes.

Key TakeawayKey takeaway

Modern time clocks increase employee productivity and reduce time theft by preventing employees from stealing time. They also simplify the time-tracking and payroll processes for employers.

Top time clocks and time and attendance systems to consider

Given the above considerations, we recommend five time and attendance systems in particular for small businesses of all stripes. These solutions have a variety of time clock options, giving you freedom of choice as you set up the ideal time-tracking process for your workforce.

  • Time Doctor: Track employee time with Time Doctor’s time clock and productivity features. These include project activity monitoring tools, which can help you plan deliverable timelines. Learn more in our full Time Doctor review.
  • When I Work: If you have a brick-and-mortar business, such as a restaurant or retail store, When I Work is a great choice. Employees can clock in via photo, and you can manage shifts with AI-based automatic scheduling. Read our When I Work review for all the details.
  • Rippling: This time clock system comes with multiple automations, including notifications to managers if a team member is approaching overtime or clocks out before the day ends. You can also use Rippling’s geofencing tools to cover time and attendance tracking for your remote employees. Learn about the system’s other features in our extensive Rippling review
  • Clockify: Clockify is a good hybrid time clock solution because it allows employees to clock in from almost anywhere while giving employers access to GPS data. With over 80 integrations, you’ll find clock-in options for desktop, mobile and on-site physical kiosks. Get a price breakdown in our Clockify review.
  • TimeClock Plus: TimeClock Plus is a great solution for big teams. This platform boasts physical hardware that can support biometric, PIN and touchless badge time clocks. To learn more, check out our TimeClock Plus review

Find a time clock that keeps your business running 

Accurate time and attendance tracking is essential to your bottom line. A high-quality time clock system can help you prevent time theft, manage employee schedules and expedite payroll processes. If you’re shopping around for a time clock, consider your business’s needs and budget. There are plenty of solutions that can meet all of your time-tracking preferences, allowing you to focus on the big picture: operating your business. 

Natalie Hamingson and Bennett Conlin contributed to this article. The source interview was conducted for a previous version of this article. 

Max Freedman
Business Operations Insider and Senior Analyst at businessnewsdaily.com
Max Freedman, has spent nearly a decade providing entrepreneurs and business operators with actionable advice they can use to launch and grow their businesses. Max has direct experience helping run a small business, performs hands-on reviews and has real-world experience with the categories he covers, such as accounting software and digital payroll solutions, as well as leading small business lenders and employee retirement providers. Max has written hundreds of articles for Business News Daily on a range of valuable topics, including small business funding, time and attendance, marketing and human resources.
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