Time Management

The Weaponized Timesheet (Or, How We All Need to Get Real About Productivity)

A digital clock running

In most any agency, timesheets have long been a pain point between decision-makers and their employees. To management, they are vital for forecasting, budgeting, hiring, measuring efficiency, and saving money.

For the underlings who produce them, they are an easy-to-forget nuisance that takes time away from their deliverable work. But maybe this constant struggle, this fixation on tracking every single minute, isn’t the product of rigorous reminding and meticulous recordkeeping.

Maybe it’s a symptom of a systemic problem.

I worked in an office where each individual’s weekly timesheets were examined by our managers, as well as high-level executives, on a weekly basis. They were used to determine the efficiency, profitability and capacity of each employee. The data was used to determine what teams we were going to be on, whether or not we could take on additional projects, and how much money were were bringing into the company versus how much we cost them.

If you think that’s kind of a lot of very big decisions to make simply based on our timekeeping, then don’t worry: we were required to account for every single minute of every week, and if we were short of our 40 hours by even one minute, we had certain privileges and freedoms taken away for a month. So, we all gave them correct data on every single minute of the week, and they had complete and thorough data with which to make well-informed decisions.

Just kidding. That kind of fixation on high-stakes timesheets caused a lot of strife. Don’t make the same mistake.

Timesheets measure time, not performance

If we’re determining every employee’s “value” to the company by using the amount of time they put into their projects, then how do we account for the fast workers? What about the team players who take time to help answer questions or help others on projects they’re not working on? Or even the friendly ones who provide camaraderie and fun to their colleagues? It should go without saying, but you can’t learn these things from a timesheet. If the executives want to evaluate an employee’s contribution to the company, couldn’t they just, you know, get to know their employees?

Nobody works eight hours a day. Deal with it.

To me, believing that every employee is focused, diligent and working actively for 480 minutes in a row is like believing in Santa Claus. It’s an open secret that nobody who is in the office (any office) is spewing out an uninterrupted flow of cold, hard work from 8 to 5. People chat with their cube mates, they get up for coffee, they leave fifteen minutes early because they have a bad headache, and they stare out the window. And those are all wonderful and important things! Certainly, they aren’t the sort of things things that employees should have to “make up” by working extra time at the end of the day. And guess what? They don’t.

Everyone’s timesheets are fuzzy numbers to cover up the fact that a timekeeping app doesn’t take into account that we are humans with complex psychological needs. There’s no need to fixate on collecting more data – it’s only going to get fuzzier.

Don’t incentivize lies

We’ve talked about faking timesheets before. It’s more or less expected, considering how much is riding on a self-reported timesheet. And if the management is not involved enough with their staff to confirm or deny the numbers in the report, it’s only natural that numbers are going to get misreported and inflated. Scrutinizing employees based on the number of hours they report working per week only serves to penalize your most honest employees which, in turn, delegitimizes your most accurate data. At the same time, your quickest and most efficient employees will either inflate numbers to “look busy”, or else overwork themselves. It’s better for one’s mental health to just fudge the numbers, so everyone will.

Moral of the story: give timesheets their rightful role

What everything boils down to is this: time tracking have an extremely vital role in the management of a business, but you’ve got to make sure you’re using the data correctly. (We love Inc.com’s post “How Most Businesses Lose Time With Tracking Software”.)  Trying to force a more “rigorous” timekeeping isn’t going to make the data do more than it already does. And it’s an ineffective way to make your employees work harder and longer days. Evaluating performance and boosting morale is what managers are for.

So yes, timekeeping is absolutely indispensable. It’s are great for billing, budgeting, planning new hires and forecasting. But be careful not to use those numbers to extract unquantifiable data, like employee performance and ability. At the end of the day, there are some things that we can only learn with time and attention, and that we can only measure with our hearts.

Photo credit: Loic Djim at Visiual Hunt under a Creative Commons license

July 21, 2017