Employee GPS Tracking Apps And How Do They Work

How Do Staff Location Tracking Apps Work?

November 30 2018

Sam Dolbel

Sam Dolbel

Founder

You may have heard about a variety of Time And Location Tracking Apps available to use on employee smartphones. One common feature of these applications is often an ability to track employee locations while they are on the clock.

In this post I want to address some common myths about this feature, and explain what does and doesn’t work, from an insider perspective.

The short answer is: Yes they work, and work well enough for most businesses, but not as well as a hardware GPS. I’ll explain why below.

When Is GPS Not GPS?

One common myth about these applications is that they use ‘GPS’ to track the employees. This is true, about 1% of the time. What these Apps use is what’s called a phone’s ‘Location Services’. This is a group of different methods the phone can use to determine where it is, such as:

  • Nearby cell phone network towers
  • Nearby WiFi networks
  • True GPS (very rarely, uses an incredible amount of battery)

Now you are asking, WiFi networks? How do WiFi networks help a phone know where it is?

Well WiFi networks are actually a fast and effective way for a phone to determine its location, and the preferred way because it uses the least battery. The way it works is that the phone reaches out to nearby WiFi networks in the area, and by recognising the time it takes to get the response back, it’s able to calculate its distance from them.

Once it has done this in multiple directions, it’s able to determine its location. This is a process known as ‘Triangulation’, and is basically a World War 1 era technology that now helps put the little blue dot down in the right place in Apple Maps. Just think of WiFi networks as a ground level GPS network!

So the first thing to consider is: These Apps aren’t really using GPS, they are requesting a location from the phone, and the phone is approximating its location based on several methods available to it at the time.

Some of these methods are more accurate than others, but can often be out by a distance of as much as 300 feet or more. Also, sometimes the phone can’t determine its location at all and the process of requesting the location will time out.

Battery, A Precious Resource

When people get an App with ‘Location Tracking’, there is a subsconscious assumption that the phone should be allowing it to get the location whenever it wants. After all, it’s a Location Tracking App!

Well, unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. The App is in reality having to compete with half a dozen other Apps that also want to request the device’s location. This can be for legitimate reasons, or just to record location data and sell it to advertisers (yes this happens!).

The phone doesn’t know the true intentions or functionality of each App, it just knows that if it doesn’t manage all these simultaneous location requests its battery will be flat in ten minutes.

Phone manufacturers want more than 10 minutes of battery life, so they need to get a little aggressive about managing location tracking.

Now imagine you are a Time Tracking App that may be running a location tracking process in the background for the entire length of a shift (8-10 hours). This is something the phone may not like.

What does this mean in practice? It means that in order to save battery, the device can actually deny an App getting locations, or even terminate the tracking process that may be running in the background for that App.

Permissions, Permissions, Permissions

Some managers often don’t realise that in order for an App to track an employee’s location, it needs to have permission to do so.

Every App that uses Location Services requires the user to give it explicit permission to access locations. This can be somewhat intrusive, and what’s worse, this permission can be revoked by the user at any time.

One very in-your-face example of this is iOS devices which will display an abrupt warning to users at a seemingly random time like:

X App has been using your location in the background. Continue?

You can imagine how this may look to a staff member (who most certainly won’t be on the clock at the time), because App makers have no way of clarifying the context of the use such as:

This App has ONLY BEEN USING YOUR LOCATION WHILE YOU ARE ON THE CLOCK in the background...

It is just the same ominous sounding warning for everyone.

This adds an extra layer of friction and push back on the employee end, even if subconsciously. Thanks, Apple.

It’s important to remember you can only track a staff member’s location if they have initially granted the App location permission and also not withdrawn the permission.

Summary

Staff Location Tracking Apps are very useful in that they generally combine this location functionality with other aspects of the App, such as Time and Job Tracking.

They are also very affordable because they are ‘Bring Your Own Device’, and don’t require any additional hardware.

This makes them an appropriate solution for most businesses, where staff location is good to know, but not critical.

However:

Because of the factors outlined above, they just cannot be relied on 100%. This is the same for any Time Tracking App that leverages a phone’s Location Services (which is all of them).

If your business requires critical, 100% accurate location tracking, then your only reliable option is a hardware based GPS solution.

Hardware products are designed to do that one job and they do it effectively, while not having to jostle with permissions or other Apps for battery life. On top of this, they actually use GPS!

Hopefully this post helps you come to a bit more of an informed decision of whether or not App-based location tracking is appropriate for your company, or whether your company will require a dedicated hardware solution.