What Online Timesheets Are Good For, and What They’re Not

Cartoon drawing of office workers with a magician casting spells

Online time tracking is a great way to glean information about employee work habits, to learn about the progress of projects, to help make certain types of business decisions, and to easily run payroll and billing. Not tracking time online is almost as crazy as not using a smartphone in today’s world, but let’s not get carried away. Online time tracking isn’t magic fairy dust either.

What Timesheets Are Good For

Timesheets may have their limitations but their uses are no mystery. Timesheets are the precursor for payroll and billing. They have the power to reveal trends to employees and managers. Time tracking data is needed to make important business decisions. Managing business without time tracking is like stabbing around in the dark and, in business where lots of money is involved, you want the guiding light of data.

  1. Payroll and billing – You need to know how many hours employees work for payroll. Most of the time it’s best to bill based on hours worked too, instead of by project, and so you need the hours for billing as well. And if you’re not billing by project hours, you’ll want to keep track of project time so that you can collect data for forecasting and budgeting.
  2. Forecasting – Time tracking data can reveal the performance history of projects and help managers predict the profitability of future projects.
  3. Budgeting – Without tracking time and expenses on projects, you can’t know the actual cost of the project. This makes it difficult to determine the profitability of future projects. Employee hours and project-related expenses should always be tracked so that managers can make informed business decisions.
  4. Productivity – My personal favorite thing about timesheets is their ability to reveal, to the individual, personal habits and trends that make sense to that individual. For those of us that are hard workers, tracking time is one of many tools that we can use to understand ourselves better.

How to Apply Timesheets Towards Better Productivity

To see the best in employees, we need to empower them, not criticize them, not nitpick at them, and not embarrass them. We are our own worst critics and best motivators when given the right opportunities and tools. Handing employees a tool with the expectation that they themselves are going to use it for their own benefit is empowering. Educating employees with time management techniques and tools is empowering.

Employees, and people in general, usually don’t respond well to criticism. They are afraid of being judged and afraid to make mistakes. Everyone reacts differently to these fears. Some people get angry, some get depressed, some become very careful which reduces creativity, and still some react by trying even harder (though these are probably the exception).

Allowing employees to find their own faults and criticize themselves is preferable to managers attacking them. Time tracking software can help with this.

Setting up employees’ projects in the timesheet software and explaining to them that they will be able to see the jobs they avoid and the ones they gravitate to, how many breaks they’re taking, how long it takes them to complete certain tasks, etc. Explaining to employees that they can then make decisions about how they divide up their time (like the Pomodoro Technique) so that they can become more productive, will feel empowering and make them want to try harder. After all, we spend eight hours a day at work. What if we could spend those eight hours being proud of what we do?

What Timesheets Are NOT Good For

Unless a manager is trying to fit all its employees into a box, (which many of them definitely do), timesheets really aren’t good for many of these things for which managers often try to use them. Every employee has their own style, their own ups and downs, and their own special motivators.

Fitting employees into a box

For example, some employees need social interaction in order to be their most creative and productive. Reprimand that employee for “wasting time” talking on the clock and you’ve just destroyed their entire day’s productivity. We need to remember that people are all unique and have their own style. When we start trying to fit everyone into a box, they will either lie, fail, or both.

  1. Spying – If managers tried, for example, to spy on their employees through the meticulous recording of duties throughout the day, their employees would simply pencil in a bunch of junk that didn’t really happen, aka lie.
  2. Changing employee’s behavior – If managers think that recording their employees’ time will whip employees into shape, holding them accountable for their time spent working, they’ll probably find themselves mistaken. Employees that don’t want to work probably won’t suddenly become stellar employees just because they start documenting how much time they spend on tasks.
  3. Eliminating excessive breaks – Employees that take a lot of breaks may be asked to start documenting those breaks so that they can be corrected or their pay docked. In some cases this might work but, most likely, employees will continue taking the same number of breaks and simply lie about it.
  4. Improving efficiency – Employees that are inefficient aren’t really going to change because they started keeping track of how little work they actually do. They’ll probably exaggerate. Maybe the reason they are so inefficient to begin with is because they haven’t been allowed to be themselves and work in an environment that’s comfortable for them.

Different employees have different needs and styles

Using timesheets won’t help to extract every last drop of work out of employees. Employees need breaks and will take them when their minds start to wander. Employees are people that are social. Employees get sick, sad, curious, bored. Some employees, i.e. people, are workaholics, some aren’t. Some have razor sharp focus, some have ADD, some like to be alone, some thrive around people.

We are all different, have different needs and working styles, and we all go through phases. Some months are stronger than others. None of us are machines that grind it out 8 hours a day, 12 months a year, for 45 years.

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