Time Tracking Done Right

Jan 26, 2016

Ahhhh, time tracking. Probably the single most hated task of today's information workers, but nevertheless an irreplaceable tool for management to know what their workforce is doing. Unfortunately, most of us are doing it wrong.

The purpose of monitoring our working hours is to provide an accurate reflection of what we're spending our time on. This can be a basis for optimization measures as well as for internal cost allocation (such as project controlling). The problem is always the same: accuracy. The tracked hours often don't reflect what we've actually done. Here's why.

  • Tracking our time is annoying. We tend to forget to record our time and have to add it later. Sometimes we forget about recording it completely. Some employees are extremely reluctant towards tracking their time accurately because they feel that management is putting them under surveillance. They might even deliberately tamper with their time records in response to this. Most people don't see time tracking as a value-adding activity
  • After-the-fact recording. Closely linked to the first point, most people don't record their time directly after they've done something, or even while they're doing it. They enter their time records once a week, or maybe even once a month (usually right before the monthly management report is created). Since by then they've completely forgotten what they've been working on, the results are completely useless
  • Crappy recording tools. The most widely-spread time tracking tools work by entering hours in some sort of table and assigning them to pre-defined activities. Usability is often extremely poor. This leads to adoption issues - people just want to get their time recording done so they can do something else that they enjoy more. That leads to sloppy recording and, again, useless results
  • Politics. The biggest and baddest of them all - internal politics. It's the worst of the issues with time recording in the sense that the company is lying to itself, utterly defeating the purpose of time recording. Time records are forged - often by management order - to make projects look better or keep budget limits. This makes time recording completely pointless, since accurate tracking is no longer possible and any decisions taken on the basis of this data are bound to be incorrect

Doing it Right

So now that we know what's wrong with time recording - how do we fix it?
The first and most important part of it is, once again, educating people on why they should track their time correctly. Make sure they understand that accurate numbers are needed for the company to work on the right (i.e. profitable) projects. Take their fear of being under surveillance away by providing complete transparency about what happens with the numbers and which decisions are taken based on them.

Secondly, provide a time-tracking tool that is extremely easy to use. If the tool gets in their way, people get frustrated and will enter anything just to get it done with. Ideally, the tool should work both on their computers and their phones, so they can use it while in their office as well as on the road or in meetings. If there's a usable and simple tool available, people are much more likely to make it part of their work routine.

Lastly, make sure that time recording is never influenced by management. This is the hardest of them all, and you can't do it directly. This is about culture. If your company has a zero-tolerance-for-errors way of management, all your project numbers will be fake. Project managers will discourage people to book time on their projects since they might go over budget. The only way to make this work is to allow people to make mistakes, to talk about them openly and without making anyone feel bad, and to encourage people to learn from their mistakes and improve the next time.