We’ve been tracking our time one way or another for the last 21 years. Since our company’s inception we’ve tried paper timesheets, spreadsheets, open source software, and web-based software. Of all the different methods we’ve tried, tracking time with spreadsheets was the most time consuming, but also the most versatile method, which may explain why so many companies continue to use them today.
Since developing our own time tracking software, Intervals, we no longer use spreadsheets. But, we have over a decade of experience consulting with companies that do. If you are thinking of tracking time using a spreadsheet, here are some the benefits and disadvantages to consider before you get started.
Spreadsheets are universal
It really doesn’t matter if you are using Excel, Calc, or Google. Each spreadsheet software has the same basic set of features that you need to track time. And, you can easily share spreadsheets with other people at your company. Services like Google will include version histories, so you can see who updated what and when, and roll back changes if needed. Spreadsheets are so universal that getting started with one makes a lot of sense, because most people already know how to work with them.
Spreadsheets are easy
It doesn’t take much to get started tracking time with spreadsheets. Once you’ve labeled the columns and rows, entering time goes quickly. As long as you keep current by updating time tracking data at the end of each day, you’ll find that entering time into a spreadsheet is a relatively painless process.
Spreadsheets are flexible
Spreadsheets empower you to format time tracking data in a way that makes the most sense to you. And, you can reorganize the data any time. You aren’t stuck within the confines of a vendor’s database structure or their set of tools. Because you are recording the raw time tracking data, you have a lot of options in how that data is structured.
Spreadsheets are time consuming
There was a season in our company’s history when we kept time records in an Excel spreadsheet. Each person on the team would submit their time to the project manager, who would then enter the time into Excel. It was a time consuming and laborious process that was prone to error, especially as we grew.
Sharing the spreadsheet on Google or OneDrive so that people could update it themselves would certainly have made this process less cumbersome, but not enough to stick with it in the long run. Be prepared to spend more time than you might think keeping the spreadsheet current and free from errors.
Spreadsheets are basic
While spreadsheets are great for tracking data and can be formatted in an infinite number of ways, getting useful information from them has its limits. You could build custom reports using the built in capabilities that come with your spreadsheet software, but, that’s going to take a long time to set up.
You might also install some add-ons, but, your data will have to be in the right format to make them work. The resulting reports and graphs may look good, but, they will be lacking intelligence. To pull more meaningful conclusions from your data you are going to need something more powerful than a spreadsheet.
Spreadsheets do not scale
A spreadsheet is essentially a series of data points along two axes and a collection of macros. Trying to organize time tracking data for every employee and project within these confines has its challenges. Is there one sheet per employee? One per project? How do you accumulate several years of data?
If you find your company is growing — hiring more people and taking on more projects, spreadsheets are not going to scale at all. Each pain point will be magnified by each new person or project coming in through the door, and you’ll get bogged down trying to keep up with it all.
What we think
Although spreadsheets might make sense at first, they don’t work as a long term solution. They did not work for us and we’ve consulted with many companies that have come to the same conclusion. Not surprisingly, tracking time with spreadsheets is still a common practice today in many small businesses. We’ve been helping companies throughout the world make the switch from spreadsheets to online time tracking since 2006. And we continue to offer free consultation services to any company ready to try our software.