The Case Against Time Tracking

Time Tracking

Despite the fact that it often takes just a couple minutes once a week, time tracking (aka entering weekly timesheets) is an ongoing subject of controversy.

 

PROPONENTS claim that it reveals important data about how much time is being spent on various activities, which helps with:

– making more accurate estimates in the future

– greater focus on high value activities

– billing internal and/or external clients

– satisfying government regulations and other compliance needs

– justifying/demonstrating how much value a team has been providing

– tallying up actual project labor costs

– and more

 

OPPONENTS claim it demoralizes people, distracts them, and ultimately lowers morale and productivity.

 

Who’s correct?

I would argue that it’s the wrong question.


Let’s assume, since there’s a well-documented critical mass of backlash and controversy about the topic, that at least some of what the opponents claim is true.  So, how do we address their valid concerns while still meeting the needs of the proponents?

Let’s revisit the intended benefits of time tracking, but right off the bat, let’s eliminate a couple of them:

  • Billing – If work will be billed, then time tracking is needed for the billable activities.
  • Regulatory – If it’s mandatory for regulatory reasons to track time spent on certain work, then time tracking is needed for any work that falls under those rules.

This leaves:

  • making more accurate estimates in the future
  • greater focus on high value activities
  • justifying/demonstrating how much value a team has been providing
  • tallying up actual project labor costs

There are alternative, “good enough” ways of getting most of this information that do not have the same negative impact on morale as timesheets. Let’s look at a few.

  • Limited time studies – This can garner valuable, and arguably more accurate, information, while focusing on a specific group or scope of work for a limited time period (typically a few weeks to a couple months). This is good for recurring tasks or for specific projects that will be a basis for future similar projects.
  • Periodic Interviews – Meeting with people one-on-one or in small groups about how their time is typically allocated on average. This is ideally done quarterly.
  • Subject Matter Expert Opinion – Asking subject matter experts for estimate advice. But beware, they may provide information pertaining to experts, not necessarily representative of the people doing the work.
  • Percent Complete and Remaining time – Working with staff to assess the percent-complete, and remaining time on tasks, so the current remaining estimate is accurate

This data gives us adequate (and maybe even more realistic) data about the past, and helps us plan the future, by way of:

  • Standard Estimates – A general percentage that an employee spends on non-project or unplanned activity (e.g., baseline support, answering questions, attending town meetings, ongoing operations, etc.)
  • Resource Assignments – Assigning people to project tasks and other planned work items.
  • Forecast updates – Using solicited information to revise project and work forecasts and related task estimates

I often advise companies to start with these latter items before even considering time tracking. These three items give you a current and forward-looking view of who’s doing what. And if the estimates are even reasonably close, it allows you to extrapolate the associated costs, often with no less accuracy than timesheet data.

This is a good time to bring up another point. Time tracking tells us about the past. Resource allocation tells us about the present and future. I don’t know about you, but when I drive, I prefer to look out the front window, not the rear-view mirror, though where I’ve been can certainly help me navigate there better in the future.

Another fact I always like to bring up: Don’t be fooled. Even if you’ve implemented time tracking, your data is likely suspect. By the end of the week, people will populate the data with whatever they think will serve them best, whatever they’re “supposed to be working on,” or whatever they remember working on. So your “best guess” estimate may be more accurate than detailed, reported time submissions, and less invasive.

If you must track time for regulatory or billing purposes, minimize the impact on morale by:

  • Articulating what the data will be used for (one organization distributed a one-page diagram titled “Where does your timesheet information go?”)
  • Only requiring time entry for select activities that are undergoing study, or where needed for billing or regulatory reasons. For this, consider encouraging daily time entry – it’s quicker, easier, and more accurate

Some of you will say that everyone should just stop whining about something that only takes a few minutes.

You’d be missing the point.

For many, time entry is a minor distraction, but it sends a not-so-minor message: that they’re under a microscope. So if you’re going to require it, make sure it’s purposeful, and that the purpose is clearly articulated. And at least consider the alternate, “good enough” methods while you focus on future assignments.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.


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2 comments to The Case Against Time Tracking

  • Arina

    Jerry, good point, thank you for sharing.
    We conducted a survey among companies using time tracking software and figured out that 40% of working time was not being logged. Here you can find more information on the reasons of poor time tracking. https://www.actitime.com/bad-time-tracking-habits.php

  • Arina, thanks for sharing your survey information. That’s actually another case I meant to make, so I’m not surprised that 40% of time is not being logged. It does seem to be a more prevalent issue than managers realize in terms of getting accurate information. For time entry to be useful, it must be easy, and it must be articulated what it’ll be used for. It’s not one of those things that you can simply mandate and assume you’ll get reasonably accurate data, unless it’s actively used for billing or regulatory reasons. And if it’s not used for those reasons, it’s even more critical to articulate why it’s needed and why other methods aren’t adequate. Then it can work.

    Of course, if the company culture is already such that people are used to logging time and have bought into it, then that’s a different story.

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