Merseytravel needed a new centralised time and attendance recording system to cover all its public transport facilities on Merseyside. Following a formal tendering process, it chose Crown Computing’s Open Options advanced time recording solution, because it offered the best combination of functionality, quality and cost-effectiveness.
Merseytravel is the operating name of the Merseyside Passenger Transport Authority and Executive, a public sector body. It is responsible for operating the Mersey ferries and tunnels and maintains over 6,000 bus stops, including more than 2,400 shelters and major bus stations throughout Merseyside. Buses themselves are run by separate private operating companies, although Merseytravel does subsidise buses on unprofitable routes. The authority employs around 960 people at its three headquarters buildings and various depots, bus stations, ferry terminals, tunnel heads and other facilities across the region.
Until 2007, many Merseytravel staff did not clock on and off formally at their places of work. For those who did, the authority lacked a reliable and centralised system to manage and monitor attendance and absence and obtain the necessary information for workforce planning and rostering. Many of the 960 employees work on shifts or flexitime, making workforce management very complicated. Holiday authorisation and other absence planning was card-based, while employees on flexitime had to be sent weekly printed paper summaries of their hours worked. Where timeclocks were used, these were five to seven years old and had been proving unreliable.
Initially, Merseytravel believed that it needed a Human Resources management software package that would incorporate time and attendance recording, in conjunction with a new generation of timeclocks and an improved wide area network (WAN). This would meet the directors’ demands for greater levels of information on staffing and management. Alastair Ramsay, Merseytravel’s Principal Personnel Officer, takes up the story: “We went out to look for an integrated HR management and time and attendance system and got a range of responses and providers – everything from high-end enterprise systems to start-up offerings, but couldn’t find anything suitable that was excellent in both. He continues: “Once we started talking to Crown in more detail, it became clear they had a lot more to offer than we had realised. As always, we had to go through the local government procurement process, after which we awarded them the contract.”
From the initial presentations by Crown Computing in October 2005, it took seven months of extensive discussions before Ramsay and his team felt ready to proceed with implementation of a new and enhanced T&A system, based on Crown’s Open Options suite. The project was planned in three phases. Phase one was to replicate staff who were already clocking on and off – the staff in the three main corporate office buildings, including its HQ. This began in July 2006 and went live in October. Phase two was to roll the system out to the rest of the executive: six bus stations, the travel shop and other remote locations, which were already networked. Phase three would be slightly more complex technically, as it would involve rolling out to the tunnels and ferries.
“There are definite improvements through freeing up of staff time and the quality of service to the HR department and all Merseytravel staff. It’s been a good experience and, subject to how Merseytravel moves forward, hopefully it will last for a good few years to come.”
Alastair Ramsay, Principal Personnel Officer, Merseytravel
Ramsay: “With our initial budget, it looked unlikely that we would be able to proceed to phases two and three in the short term. However, working with Crown – who didn’t push their consultancy services on us, but just said ‘We’re here if you need us.’ – our consultancy expenditure was much lower than we had anticipated and because we set up a dedicated team in-house, we were able to bring phases two and three forward without having to go back for more budget. Consequently, we carried on rolling out the system during 2007, with most locations up and running by July. Although we had had a few problems with our older timeclocks, which are magnetic swipe card-based, we replaced all of them with equivalent models from the same manufacturer and they have since performed efficiently with the Crown system.”
All timeclocks have IP addresses and sit out on the WAN, pushing their data back to the central server, where Open Options resides, in conjunction with .Net and Microsoft SQL and which synchronises time across the WAN. Ramsay says that the IT team were very pleased with the implementation: “Installation itself took two or three days and Crown kept our IT people involved at all stages, then they went away and left us to play with it – for want of a better word. We had regular follow-up visits from our designated Crown support person and we used the helpline quite extensively during that phase, so I can safely say it’s been a really good experience.”
Ramsay states that he and his colleagues started building working patterns and then trialled Open Options within IT and Personnel, initially for five or six weeks, in parallel with the existing system. “After that we were satisfied it was doing what it should and got the rest of the phase one staff up and running. We continued parallel running for a short while, but as soon as it became apparent there was no need, we switched over to the Crown system completely. We haven’t needed to do a lot of customisation work ourselves, so our installation isn’t so very different from the ‘out of the box’ setup, apart from adding people and setting them up, then putting in new rosters and shift changes. It’s been very intense at times, although much of the setup was straightforward. The system has been very well received by most employees, who can now access their own records using a web browser locally – there have been very few moans and groans!” The system has several access levels according to need, from the read-only access of employees who can see their own records and check they agree with their payslips and holiday bookings, to the highest management and configuration levels.
Putting It All Together
Ramsay says that holiday and absence booking is now being rolled out to the field, although many people remain attached to the old manual leave cards, because they can get their managers to sign them, rather than email a request through the system. He points out that more and more people are using the new electronic procedure, however, and he is convinced it’s certainly more efficient and is gradually eliminating the otherwise un-trackable cards ‘floating around’. He comments: “We’re combating some people’s lack of familiarity with computers through a very robust set of learning centres, which are based out on the sites. For the past two or three years the e-learning team have been promoting IT development, to help staff embrace the technology. More and more staff like being able to check their records, thanks to the self-service function in Open Options. Another major benefit of the Crown Computing implementation has been with staff on flexitime. Each week they would be sent a printout, which was quite an administrative headache with 300 people on flexitime. Reports had to be printed, collated and then posted, which isn’t particularly environmentally friendly, either. Now, all the flexitime workers can check their hours online, which has been a real business benefit for us.”
Ramsay: “We’ve now got sufficient information in the system to look at reporting options and are considering some of the other modules in Open Options, such as access control, workforce planning and scheduling, which is of interest to managers and we’ve started doing some work with Crown in those areas. As an organisation, we’re very happy with the relationship – they’re neither ‘in your face’, nor impossible to get hold of, which has been our experience with other suppliers in the past. Crown do make themselves available and the helpline is excellent. They’re actually nice people as well and we get on with them, which always helps.”
Ramsay observes: “It’s a bit soon to quantify the return-on-investment benefits of our Crown system, but there are definite improvements through freeing-up of staff time and the quality of service to the department and to staff generally. It’s also improving our absence reporting capabilities – we’re a lot more confident of their accuracy.”
Ramsay concludes: “You can always think of things you wish a program did or didn’t do, but fortunately Crown will always listen to suggestions. I know I should probably say something negative about Crown in the interests of objectivity, but really I can’t. It’s been a good experience and, subject to how Merseytravel moves ahead, hopefully it will last for a good few years to come.”