4 tips for building a culture of tracking time

Jennifer Payne | August 3rd, 2017


Time tracking is in the DNA of the Intervals team because of the value it brings to the team and business. One benefit to being a professional services company that bills hourly is that you don’t have to carry inventory in the hopes of selling it. However, it does not mean we don’t have inventory. Time is our inventory and just as in other businesses, giving away inventory is not a good thing. Contractors, lawyers, consultants, accountants, all know the value of tracking time and how important their “inventory” is. For software, web development and other professional service companies, many employees can be leary of time tracking, and probably with good reason.

Time is our inventory and just as in other businesses, giving away inventory is not a good thing.

A bad boss demanding accountability for every second, or asking questions like “Why did that feature take so long?” expecting a quick answer, can really leave a bad taste in our mouths. We constantly hear excuses for why not to track time:

“I keep forgetting, I’m not good at it,”

“I’m not an hourly employee and I want the freedom to not have to track all my hours.”

For a small business or organization focusing on efficiency or simply wanting to be successful, time tracking answers a lot of questions. If you bill for your time (even if you flat bid) it is an essential tool for an organization to find its optimal flow. With our software, Intervals, we deliberately do not track timer start and pause times, for this exact reason. We are focused on tracking productivity. We don’t want to audit each person’s day…that is not the point. The point is to know if your scarce resources and time are being used in a way that makes sense for the team to achieve their goals and for the organization to achieve its goals as well.

We are focused on tracking productivity. We don’t want to audit each person’s day…that is not the point.

We recognize there is more to tracking time than simply logging time entries. The resistance is more about the culture of tracking time than the actual act. Tools make it easy to track time…press play, press stop, apply. Do that for a few weeks and you’ve built the habit and it no longer is a big deal. However, building a culture around tracking time isn’t so straightforward. Individuals can do a great job tracking time, but if the data isn’t used in the right way, it can quickly become a negative for everyone involved.

There are key components that must exist in a culture in order for the excuses above to transition into comments like:

“Why wouldn’t you track time?”

1. Focus on tracking productivity

Don’t try to track every single minute of every day, especially when you’re first starting out. The goal is to know how long certain tasks take. This will give you the data to be more efficient in your future work. The goal isn’t to become a human time clock.

Tracking where all your time is going is valuable, as this Forbes article does a good job pointing out. However, the goals of tracking time on tasks and tracking all of your time are different and should be kept separate.

The goal isn’t to become a human time clock.

Once you get used to tracking time, you can know your flow. You’ll be able to know what a good week vs. an overtaxed week looks like, with the goal of finding a sustainable rhythm so you know when to push and when to back off. And, by keeping the team focused on tracking productivity, not “punching the clock:”

  • the team will get started tracking their time right away, reducing hesitations that may exist
  • valuable data can quickly be accumulated that the team can use right away on current tasks
  • the team will have clearer and more focused communication related to time spent on tasks, boosting productivity, almost immediately.

2. Build trust & eliminate fears

When individuals first start out tracking time, immediate fears can develop, such as:

  • Will I get in trouble if my full 8 hours are not tracked?
  • What if I forget to stop/start a timer and my time isn’t 100% accurate? Will it still be valuable? Will I get in trouble?
  • What if people think I’m too slow on a task?

Whatever those fears are, it is important to have open lines of communication and trust to help reduce them, hopefully eliminating them completely.

As you begin working to eliminate any fears that develop, it is important to remember that building trust CANNOT happen if you aren’t OPEN and HONEST with your team members. This cannot be emphasized enough. If you tell your team that you aren’t tracking the number of hours worked in a day, then mean it. Your actions MUST emulate your words. You can’t say “based on your time entered, it doesn’t look like you’re working your full 8 hours…what’s going on?” Do NOT mistake tracking time for managing team member behavior. Tracking time is not a necessary tool to expose poor performers…they will get exposed whether or not they track time.

Tracking time is not a necessary tool to expose poor performers…they will get exposed whether or not they track time.

First speak with team members individually to understand their specific fears or concerns. Having this conversation one-on-one, as opposed to at the team level, provides a safer environment and breeds an open and honest discussion. Once you understand team members’ fears, you can actively work to reduce them through follow-up one-on-one conversations and interactions with the team.

Then, to continue building trust as the team gets used to tracking their time, look for ways in which the team is benefiting and intentionally point it out to them.  Sometimes we can benefit from something without realizing it and it is important to make the team aware of those benefits as they occur. Constantly seeing the benefits will replace their negative associations attached to tracking time, with positive ones. This will not only build trust, it will also get them closer to truly believing in the question: “Why wouldn’t you track time?”

3. Practice, practice, fail, and practice some more

In order to get good at things, we need to practice and do them consistently until they become habit. Once things are a habit, similar to exercising, they become much easier. And, similarly to practicing anything (piano, sports, gaming, etc.), we will fail along the way.

We must fail in order to get better.

When starting out, you’ll forget to start a timer, you’ll forget to stop one. However, the more you do it, the more it becomes part of you, your daily routine, and you’ll stop forgetting. Be OK with yourself and team members not getting it perfect in the beginning. Don’t let the fear of not getting it right in the beginning stop you from starting to track your time. You’ll quickly see the benefits, it will start to feel good, and you will stop forgetting.

4. Have regular team discussions about time

Just as teams need to practice tracking their time, they also need practice having discussions about the time tracked. Be intentional in reviewing time from an analytical viewpoint, making it part of the discussion on a regular basis. After awhile, the discussion will come naturally.

Sometimes 1 hour of work for one client can feel much harder than 10 hours for another. This helped us eventually learn that we liked doing development more than design and could get paid for it easier.

For example, when our primary business was focused on web development, we would meet on Monday and review the previous week. We would first ask, “Did it feel like a good week? A bad week? Somewhere in between?” We would then look at where our time actually went, which projects/clients we worked on, etc. Sometimes 1 hour of work for one client can feel much harder than 10 hours for another. This helped us eventually learn that we liked doing development more than design and could get paid for it easier.

Here are examples of some additional questions that guided our discussions during our weekly meetings:

  • When we bid on this web development project, did we build in enough time? What do our margins look like? Should we increase our estimates for future bids?
  • Do we like how this project turned out? Time feel about right? Too tight?
  • This project was different than usual but we took it on? Should we do more like this or stay clear?
  • We flat bid this project, but our hours came in high? An anomaly or are we not bidding high enough for these types of jobs?

This approach to being honest about where your time is going, tracking it and setting goals as a team, instead of “Hey Resource Joe, here’s your time report for last week and here’s what you did every minute,” allows you to effectively use your main resources in a way that works for them and you as a company. And as a professional services company, your main resources are your people and time.

When you get to the point where tracking time becomes about tracking productivity, you will have a finger on the pulse, or “intervals” (the ups and downs) of your business. You will be better equiped to make decisions about your business. If the team is happy, clients are happy and you know you can bill out a certain number of hours a week, what’s the best way then to grow? Hire more people and take on more work? Or possibly, for those teams that don’t want to grow in numbers and want to stay small, consider increasing your rates.

Photo credit: Pricenfees

Leave a Reply

Intervals Blog

A collection of useful tips, tales and opinions based on decades of collective experience designing and developing web sites and web-based applications.

What is Intervals?

Intervals is online time, task and project management software built by and for web designers, developers and creatives.
Learn more…

John Reeve
Author Profile
John Reeve

John is a co-founder, web designer and developer at Pelago. His blog posts are inspired by everyday encounters with designers, developers, creatives and small businesses in general. John is an avid reader and road cyclist.
» More about John
» Read posts by John

Jennifer Payne
Author Profile
Jennifer Payne

Jennifer is the Director of Quality and Efficiency at Pelago. Her blog posts are based largely on her experience working with teams to improve harmony and productivity. Jennifer is a cat person.
» More about Jennifer
» Read posts by Jennifer

Michael Payne
Author Profile
Michael Payne

Michael is a co-founder and product architect at Pelago. His contributions stem from experiences managing the development process behind web sites and web-based applications such as Intervals. Michael drives a 1990 Volkswagen Carat with a rebuilt 2.4 liter engine from GoWesty.
» More about Michael
» Read posts by Michael

Videos, tips & tricks