Time is of the essence: the value of time tracking to a growing digital agency

Time-tracking is a contentious topic. A lot of people hate it. I can understand that. It’s probably got something to do with the idea that completing a timesheet often has little to do with anything constructive - and is much more aligned with that horrible brand of micro-management that sees a mostly faceless organisation treating adults like they can’t be trusted.

At some point, I think that most of us have been a part of an archaic organisation that really only uses timesheets to satisfy the dangerously hostile Barbara from accounting. Coupled with the cute, ancillary benefit of also being able to use timesheets to wield old-school control over the staff body, it’s pretty safe to say that it’s rarely a fun experience. And it’s not something any self respecting digital agency would do well to replicate.

So at Onespacemedia, it’s a little different. We’ve always time tracked our tasks to some extent (for a number of reasons - most to do with transparency), but this year we’ve made a real, concerted effort to make sure that everybody’s on the same page with the sort of diligence that we need to make the data useful. Now, we track everything. This extends to:

  • Client project work
  • Internal project work
  • Management activities
  • Communication work
  • Meetings
  • I’m even time tracking this blog!

I’ll explain a little about what we do and why we do it, and how it helps our project teams and our clients.

Nobody is 100% billable
First, it’s important to make it clear that being thorough with time tracking doesn’t really have anything to do with holding people to task. Good work takes time and good people rarely need that sort of management - particularly if they’re already part of a highly collaborative and well-led team in the first place. And let’s not get it twisted - nobody is 100% billable all of the time. First, that’s called being human - and second, it’s the nature of the client services industry. With such a variety of clients and projects, small businesses always experience productivity peaks and troughs. While sometimes the entire company is firing on all cylinders, there’s also occasionally some slack while new contracts are signed or internal projects are completed. That’s one of the most complicated parts of building a business and it’s also why accurate resource allocation and project management is vital to keeping everything on time and on-budget.

Accurate metrics and data driven decisions
Having access to accurate metrics about what’s going on in the company means that heads of departments can make quick and informed decisions about new work that can be taken on and its short and long-term value to the business. Being able to base these big decisions on an accurate picture of the company’s obligations means that we can be highly considered in both what we offer clients and make sure not to crush our team under the weight of an unmanageable workload - which also comes with the benefit of keeping everyone’s morale up as a result. This sort of information helps us to identify where we’ve got additional capacity and where we’ve got an opportunity to drive additional revenue. We also need to know where we are in a project’s lifecycle to satisfy our growing invoicing and cash-flow requirements.

Resource, budget & project management
This is basically the clincher - we always need good information on understanding where we are with our projects in terms of time and budget. It’s as simple as being able to see the number of hours and cash budget left on a project and knowing that it’s as close to accurate as can be reasonably expected. Being able to demonstrate what’s been done with accurate logs also gives us an extra layer of commercial protection, too. 

Larger clients, bigger projects and growth
Having the ability to make better decisions is central to growing a high-quality offering at a manageable rate. Being able to do this while still maintaining a solid reputation with existing clients is quite forcefully pushing us towards what was already fast approaching territory - bigger clients and more significant projects.

Which leads me onto my next point. More significant commercial agreements come with caveats, and in order to operate in the big leagues, we recognise that we need to be on point. That’s not just with regard to making sure that all of our time is accounted for, but also with regard to understanding how we can best serve their ongoing needs. These things are obviously very closely tied together and our collective effort at getting all of them right is a real driver behind pushing us into our next stage of growth.

So, in short, it’s key to the growth of our business that we understand what’s happening with our collective time. And while nobody expects an 8-hour, fully billable entry for everybody every day, being able to see where we are spending time is a large part of being able to profile our operation and decide where we go next.

Of course, it’s easier said than done. But a few of the things that have worked for us are:

  • Get into good habits - We use an application called Harvest to manage our time, which has a pretty intuitive desktop app. We encourage everyone to track their time on a per-task basis as they go, to avoid having to try and remember everything they did that week at 4.55pm on a Friday.
  • Send an infrequent reminder -  We send a single reminder once a week to give people a nudge in case they’ve forgotten to submit their time. Any more than that quickly becomes an annoyance that people ignore.
  • Chat about it - Can’t remember how long that meeting earlier took? Ask someone.
  • Nobody’s above the clock - Good leaders lead by example. Even our MD tracks his time and that’s an important example to set for the rest of the team.
  • Explain what it’s for - You’ve hired smart people on the merit of their industrial skills. Smart people are far more receptive to being asked to do something when they actually know what the point of it is. Be open and explain exactly how an accurate picture of time contributes to a better work environment and subsequently, a better quality of product.

In closing
Hopefully that’s a useful insight into the way that we track our time, and the way that we use the metrics. We use Harvest. Is there something you do specifically to help with your time management? Do you disagree altogether? Let us know in the comments below!


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