If you're looking to improve time management on your team, time tracking is the place to start. While this is undoubtedly an unpopular topic among most employees, it is nevertheless essential if you want the ability to consistently meet deadlines, forecast future bandwidth, and effectively allocate resources.
In some ways, it all comes down to your skills as a manager. Initially, your employees won't be any more eager to track the hours they spend on individual tasks than they are to update spreadsheets, fill out expense reports, or complete other required chores that seem like distractions from their "real" work. But gaining cooperation may be easier than you think, once team members realize time tracking can help them report on what they do, and as a result, get the respect they deserve.
1. Establish a Shared Vision
In Managing High Performance and Retention (2001), Bob Weyant describes the three kinds of power managers have to influence employee behavior:
Commitment to a shared vision—team members will comply because they have personally bought into the goal
Personal power—employees will do what you ask willingly because you've demonstrated respect, empathy, specificity and genuineness in the past
Position power—employees will respond to your power to reward or punish them, based on your superior position on the org chart
According to Weyant, "Effective leaders influence mostly through shared vision/goal and personal power." In fact, every time you use position power, you lose a little bit of your personal power.
So how do you get commitment to a shared vision? You start by actually sharing your vision. Don't just tell your team what they need to start doing (tracking the hours they spend on individual projects), explain the why as well.
Throughout her decades-long career advising and training teams across the nation, organization development consultant Kathryn Gowans has frequently cited one universal truth: in the absence of context and information, it's human nature to guess, and our guesses will almost always be both negative and wrong.
If you don't explain your true reasons for asking your team to start logging their hours, they will make up their own reasons:
She doesn't trust me
She thinks I'm wasting too much time
She's a micromanager
She's looking for reasons to fire me
As you make your case for time tracking, there are plenty of valid reasons to draw from. Besides making each employee more mindful of how they spend their work hours, time tracking also gives you, as their manager, greater visibility into overall productivity and workflow. This kind of transparency makes it possible to:
Account for ad hoc requests and favors that are outside usual work processes
Reapportion workload so no one's under-challenged or overloaded
Defend current staff size to upper management
Make the case for hiring additional staff if needed
Be more realistic about your team's bandwidth—and avoid burning them out
Justify saying "no" or "not this week" to external project requests
Address productivity problems at their source, instead of spreading the blame across the whole team
If you share this list of benefits with your team, your underperformers may still have cause to worry or complain—after all, they won't be able to get away with slacking as easily anymore. But those who are pulling their weight will look at this list with relief. "You mean tracking my hours means job security and less overtime? Sign me up!"
2. Choose an Intuitive Solution
If you've invested some effort into sharing your vision with the team, make sure the solution you choose has the power to deliver on what you've promised. Ideally, it should work intuitively with the processes you already have in place, rather than taking too many additional steps. If your team uses a project management software solution, choose a time-tracking tool that integrates well with what you have.
Time management and productivity expert Laura Vanderkam personally prefers the pen and paper method for keeping track of her own work hours. But for businesses who need to track employee time in a uniform way, she nominated 10 time-tracking apps that can make individuals and teams more productive. Vanderkam skewed her list in favor of apps that "also help you monitor aspects of your personal time, so you don't lose days to web surfing and TV—unless that's what you really want to do."
But when selecting a time-tracking protocol for team vs. individual use, there are a few additional questions to ask, depending on your team's needs, including:
Does your current project management solution have a time-tracking feature that you're just not using?
Does it take employees out of the work they're doing and into a separate system?
If it's a separate system, does it integrate well with other business tools you use?
Is it clunky and intrusive or smooth and intuitive?
Does it have a "start/stop" function, so employees don't have to watch the clock, count minutes, and enter their time manually?
Is there a desktop widget that can run in the background, so you don't have to open a web browser or separate application to use it?
Can you as the manager easily view individual and team results?
Can time be logged on a mobile device as well—or on desktop only?
3. Enforce the Policy
Once you've effectively shared your vision and selected an application or protocol that will work for your team, it's important to hold everyone accountable for using the tool on an ongoing basis.
The only way to gather reliable metrics that will enable you to justify headcount, address productivity problems, and reapportion workload—among all the other benefits listed in section one above—is for team usage to be consistent and universal.
If usage becomes sporadic or uneven, refer back to your three influencing options. Start by sharing the vision again, then try using your personal power to improve adoption (often a short reminder conversation will be all you need), and if those don't work, rely on your position power. This may mean applying rewards and consequences to help motivate team members to comply.
4. Allow Some Untracked Hours
Creative problem solving is an important aspect of nearly every kind of corporate job, and there must be a certain amount of freedom and downtime in order for this kind of creativity to flourish. A work culture that's too rigid will only get in the way of true spontaneity and innovation.
No employee should be expected to account for every single minute of an 8-hour workday. Make it clear to your team that your real goal with time tracking is to find predictable patterns that show how long each type of task takes to complete—as well as to have an accurate record of the number and types of tasks your team churns through each week or month—not to make sure each employee is working on billable tasks 100% of the day.
To keep your over-achievers or OCD-prone employees from stressing over their timesheets, set a clear expectation that only about 80% of each day or week needs to be tracked. Alternately, you can make the distinction based on task type, as follows:
Tasks to Track
Anything assigned to you by someone else on the team
All smaller tasks that are part of larger projects
Any task that's logged in your project-management system
Random requests from people outside the team
Tasks to Leave Untracked
Checking and responding to email
Management activities regarding direct reports
Take Control of Your Time
"Whether or not a team member is billing by the hour, it is important to understand that time is one of the most valuable (and scarce) resources at any organization," Grammarly CEO Brad Hoover said in Inc.com. "Operating under the assumption that your time is worth money--whether to you or to your client--helps you to prioritize the finite number of hours in your day."
Time tracking is one way to keep team members more mindful of how they're spending that precious resource. But even more importantly, it gives managers the data they need to streamline processes, predict and meet deadlines, make hiring and outsourcing decisions, distribute workload evenly across the team, and ultimately build trust with stakeholders and executives.
About the Author
Marcus is a content strategist and producer who loves helping brands craft content that improves customers' lives, builds brand credibility, and demands to be shared. For the last 10 years, Marcus has worked in every type of content—from writing to video production to design—and is currently a senior content marketing manager at Workfront, where he oversees all corporate- and awareness-level level content. When he's not producing content, he's consuming it, in the form of books, movies, and podcasts.Follow on Twitter More Content by Marcus Varner