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Time Tracking: What Do We Think We’re Measuring?


Nearly every well-organized consultancy tracks their employees’ hours, trying to derive a magical number called “capacity utilization”. But, what if our ability to deliver has only a faint relationship to hours worked? What if our carefully-calculated productivity numbers are, for lack of a better word, shit?

If you’re in a professional environment where time tracking in the norm, you know the feeling of sitting down to fill out your timesheet on Friday — after a brutal, miserable, bottle-of-Merlot-a-night sort of week — only to discover that you billed about 26 hours worth of work. Hardly more than a part-time job at Starbucks. Without the free lattés.

If you’re lucky, maybe you’ve also had the opposite experience; after a week in The Zone, the arrival of Friday afternoon is startling, like a deer leaping out in front of your car. You barely remember working this week, yet somehow you’ve left a trail of brilliant deliverables and 42 hours billed to your clients.

How can both of these experiences exist in the same field, much less in the same exact job? The answer is that we often treat “thought work” the same way as manual labor, where hours go in one end and predictable products come out the other. If we increase the number of hours worked, we should get more product, until the worker is physically exhausted. This model works well when figuring out the capacity of a production line. It fails miserably when determining the capacity of a creative team.

As a business owner, I knew that when I looked at timesheets, I was looking at a fiction.

– Jon Lax

Recently, Jon Lax gave an excellent talk on the history of the “billable hour”, and how it came to pervade our industry. The concept has been around since the 1960s in the creative world — credit goes to David Ogilvy  (though “blame” may be the word), who needed a new pricing model to land the Shell account. He looked to the legal profession, which had in turn looked to manufacturing, which had been heavily influenced by Frederick Taylor’s “Scientific Management” approach. But hours were never meant to be sold. Even in Taylor’s efficient dystopia, where the physical motions of line workers were timed to the millisecond, time measurement was a management technique, not a pricing model.

Fortunately, most designers and agencies have seen the light on project-based pricing, and avoid billing clients on an hourly basis. Timesheets, however, remain — no longer used in billing, somehow we still believe that hours have something to do with our productivity and profitability. We “made money” if, at the end of a project, our total hours multiplied by our “internal billing rate” is a lower number than what we charged the client. You’ll notice something here: it doesn’t matter if the project made half the team want to quit. It doesn’t matter how much we stressed our people, advanced their careers, or challenged their minds. It’s only the hours that matter.

That is shit. And we can change it.

First, we have to understand the resource that we’re “using up” when we do creative work. It isn’t only hours (although technically you’ll eventually run out of those, too). It is our willingness to show up and do a good job. We each have a burnout fuse, and the speed at which it burns is determined by how far your daily work is from your personal ideal — basically, what you would do all day, every day, for free. Once you’ve burned through your fuse, you can’t push any further. The quality of your work will collapse, or you will quit, or you’ll lash out at others in the office.

So what determines how fast your fuse burns? Recent research in the psychology of burnout suggests that three factors are at play: emotional challenge, intellectual challenge, and career development.

  • Emotional challenge is deadlines, stress, and competition. Do you thrive on these, or avoid them?
  • Intellectual challenge is the difficulty and novelty of your day-to-day. Do you prefer predictable work, or constant curveballs?
  • Career development is about your professional trajectory. Are you happy where you are, or do you need to keep moving up?

If any of these factors are consistently out of line with your personal preferences, work will be significantly more taxing, and you will be able to deliver less of it before crashing. Whether an employee is “profitable” is thus not just based on the employee, but also on the nature of the work; if your company spends its time solving deep intellectual problems, employees who prefer more predictable challenges will burn out more quickly. This is your limiting factor, not the number of hours in the work day.

If we had a way of tracking these qualitative burnout factors, rather than merely the hours we spend on our work, we could better understand how much we’re pushing people, and how far our employees are from their own personal sweet spots. We could allocate projects in a way that best matches how people work, rather than treating them (both people and projects) as fungible commodities. If we had a tool that sacrificed hourly precision for holistic accuracy, we’d suddenly understand a lot more about our “capacity”.

And yes, we’re building it. Want to help? Get in touch.

Author Geordie Kaytes

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