There is one evil that haunts the days and even the nights of most agency workers: the timesheet.
Employees avoid it at every opportunity, but eventually, time -- or the poor soul in charge of collecting timesheets -- catches up with them. Some agencies have even gone as far as rewarding employees with free beer if they submit their reports on time, which isn't such a bad idea.
The real problem with timesheets is that they require you to track time on every single thing you do, and no one likes to be micromanaged. No one wants to know if that project took longer than it should have or discover how few hours they actually spent on "real" work that week.
The Reason for Tracking Time
The problem is unavoidable. Our industry is built on billable hours. Even retainers are based on an understanding of how much time an agency will spend on a specific client each month.
The other problem is that people don't actually track their time, so agencies never have a true understanding of how much time is required to complete a project. Consider this: A designer estimates it will take 10 hours to complete a design. Three months later, he fills out his timesheet over a period of two weeks, accounting for 11 hours of design time. He didn't actually track his time, but he thinks it's in that ballpark. Besides, it looks good that he spent a lot of work on the project. The team lead reviews the timesheets and compares it to the original estimate. There are two implications: 1) The project is unprofitable. 2) Future quotes for this type of design project will be set at 15 hours.
Now, if the designer had tracked his time, he would have been able to say that it actually took him 6 hours to complete the project. This knowledge would have changed the agency's view of that project. In addition, this miscalculation causes inflated prices moving forward. It creates the misconception that anything below 15 hours could be unprofitable for the agency.
Timesheets are a necessary evil if profitability is a concern. But you can make it easier on your staff to make time tracking a part of their daily work.
4 Tips for Getting Employees to Track Their Time
One of the biggest problems even if you've made time tracking mandatory is that timesheets are ignored and therefore inaccurate. To get your team on board with watching the clock, follow these rules:
Communicate the benefit of tracking time.
Forcing employees to track their time can breed suspicion -- they feel like they are constantly being monitored and timesheets are a way to "check in" that they are doing what they should be doing. It's important that you explain time tracking is not about a lack of trust; it's about making sure the company remains profitable, as mentioned above. And profit leads to bonuses and raises and investments in future "fun" things. Time tracking can also help to improve forecasting and capacity issues, removing the stress because your agency has underestimated the project and overpromised to the client.
Provide training and support.
Make sure every single employee -- including leadership -- is trained on how to use the time tracking program, how to submit timesheets, and how to review their own productivity. Create a guide for new employees to read over, and make sure you stay up-to-date on improvements in the software. One of the barriers to tracking time is overcomplicated and unusable software.
Reward employees who follow guidelines.
If your agency requires timesheets, then tracking time is just part of the job. But you can reward employees with small gifts or recognition if they consistently submit accurate timesheets on time. One fun way to do this is to give your employees back their "time" by letting those who do this well leave early once a month on a Friday.
Make it a seamless part of their workday.
People don't look forward to logging hours in a spreadsheet every Friday at 5 p.m. Choose a tool that works with your agency, and ask for people to test out and review various apps. Do people want to integrate the tool with their calendar or project management software? Is having a mobile app necessary? Do your managers need to be able to see when remote workers are online and working? Consider what would cause the least disruption in your team's workday.
10 Time Tracking Software Options to Evaluate
To really understand how much time it takes to write a blog post or design a landing page or even the time required to service one high-maintenance client, you need a reliable and easy-to-use time tracking solution. It needs to be something your team will enjoy using, and it should have all the features without being overly complicated. Time tracking add-ons and apps are available in many other agency project management systems, so check out the integrations pages of your other software to see if there is one you could use with your current tools.
TrackingTime has apps for Windows and Mac users and boasts an iPhone and Android app. You simply input a task, choose a project, and press play to start tracking. With this tool, you can see which clients took up the majority of your time, and how you are spending your time in-between projects.
Its Pro version has a calendar integration for managing and monitoring tasks and projects. And there's powerful reporting in the app where you can analyze where the team's time went and filter by project, client, or user. In addition, you can use the Zapier connection to streamline your workflows with project management tools, invoicing software, calendars, and email.
Price: Free for teams up to nine people, Pro is $4.99/user/month
Timely is a hybrid of a to-do list, time tracking app, and calendar. It integrates with major calendar providers -- such as Google and Mac -- and each task is tagged with a specific project. You simply block off hours in your calendar, and the tool will log your tim. You can also easily move projects around with the drag-and-drop feature. The program allows a manager to view his team's projects and calendar, so he can see who has too much on his plate and what projects are going over budget.
Price: Free for individual use and up to five projects, $14/user/month
Harvest boasts a robust, yet easy-to-use, time tracking application that has an iOS, Android, and even an Apple Watch app. Managers can send reminders to team members to submit their timesheets, review billable and non-billable hours across the company, analyze data, and send invoices from the application. There's a desktop application, and Harvest integrates with tools such as Basecamp, Trello, and Zendesk. You can also use Harvest's resource planning tool Forecast to schedule future projects and assign team members based on capacity.
Price: Free for one user for two projects, $12/user/month/unlimited projects, $49/5 users/month/unlimited projects, $99/10 users/month/unlimited projects
ClickTime tracks time by client, project, employee, and individual tasks so it's easy to understand the profitability of an account, employee utilization, and the typical time it takes to complete a task for future estimates and proposals.
The tool allows employees to enter expense sheets as well, so you can track hard costs associated with a project, and there is a budgeting feature where your agency can track costs and time associated with a project budget or a monthly retainer. ClickTime's resource planning function helps managers allocate employee time effectively, and its reports allow you to find projects at risk of overservicing.
Price: $10/user/month, $12/user/month with budgeting
Dashable works by pulling project information from applications such as Trello, Basecamp, Github, and Pivotal Tracker and syncing a project's status. It sends an email each day to users to have them verify their activity and time spent for the day, and managers receive an email each morning to review the previous day's work and billable hours. Dashable includes invoicing capabilities so that once a job is completed, you can create an invoice and get paid quickly.
Price: $79/6 users/month, $199/15 users/month
Tick is a simple time tracking application that lets people choose the project, enter a task, and record their time. One interesting feature is the ability see instantly how much of a project is complete and if it is under or over budget. You can set an overall budget and task-specific budgets. Reporting features include the ability to see profitability and time spent by employee or client.
If your agency uses Basecamp, Tick has a nice integration where you can enter your time from within the project management tool.
Price: Free for one project, $19/unlimited users/10 projects/month, $49/unlimited users/30 projects/month, $79/unlimited users/60 projects/month
Toggl is a popular time tracking app that supports separate teams within an organization. You can assign individuals a different billable rate, and for agencies who work with freelancers, you can create separate workspaces so confidential documents don't fall into the wrong hands. The tagging feature makes sure that all projects, clients, and tasks are easy to find and evaluate. The software also tracks how you spent your day -- including what programs you used and where there were gaps, which could be helpful when manually entering time spent on a project.
Toggle has a Chrome extension and is available as a Windows and Mac desktop app, and Android and iOS mobile apps. It has hundreds of integrations so it can seamlessly be added to your current workflows.
Price: $9/user/month, $18/user/month, $49/user/month for added features
Timecamp is another good solution for teams. It integrates with your calendar and tracks billable and non-billable time as well as allowing you to add notes to time entries and showcasing how your estimated hours compare to actual worked. The tool provides invoicing capabilities, so you can easily bill clients at the end of the month or project. It also gives visibility into what people are your team are spending their time working on, promoting transparency and trust between colleagues.
Price: Free for one user, $6/user/month, $9/user/month
Freckle is a user-friendly time tracking tool for teams. It's easy to keep track of projects or types of work through its tagging system, understand employee utilization rates, and keep track on non-billable time. The Pulse section lets employees see their productivity by day, and you can import timesheets from Excel and other time tracking applications.
Price: $19/month/1 user, $49/month/5 users, $199/month/25 users
Hubstaff specializes in tracking remote team members by allowing managers to see who is online and what projects they are working on. The program can run in the background of a user's computer and take screenshots periodically to make sure your employees are being productive. It also integrates with PayPal, Payoneer, and Quickbooks for payments and has integrations with 16 project management platforms, including Basecamp, Jira, and Asana.
Price: Free/1 user/month, $49/10 users/month, $99/20 users/month, $249/50 users/month
What time tracking tool does your team use? What struggles do you have with getting your team to track their time? Let us know in the comments below!
Editor's Note: This post was originally published in February 2015 and has been updated and for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.