Time tracking is a fact of agency life. You do some work, you record your time. This is logical because you’re charging by the hour: tot up the hours done at the end of the month and you can send an invoice.

But time tracking is something that in-house marketers seem to have never got on with. Surely the only point of doing it is for management to monitor how long your tea breaks take?

If they introduce time tracking, what will the next step be? Rationing of biscuits? A maximum number of loo breaks? 

This idea misses something very important: for some activities tracking time is the only way of measuring and improving return on investment.

And at the end of the day, that’s what your boss (and his boss) care about.

For more on this topic, read our post on the best time to review a project.

What’s the ROI of your blog? Only time tracking can tell you

According to Lord Kelvin:

If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it

Everyone blogs nowadays. It’s a standard piece of advice that even managers in large organisations are happy to take and dish out.

Want to improve your online visibility? Easy, start a blog. Contribute to it regularly, get the articles out there on social media, do a bit of PR and soon you’ll be diving into piles of cash like Scrooge McDuck.

That advice is all well and good, but after months of hard graft how do you know that your blog is a success? Well, there’s only one way to prove the success of a medium and that’s by answering this question:

Did this make us more profit than any other medium we could have used?

Profit, of course, means analysing both revenue and cost. You can probably look at your web analytics software to find the revenue side of the equation, but that’s just the vanity metric.

To find the value of the actionable metric you also need to work out cost. But how can you work that out? You’re not paying a marketing agency for their expertise or a publisher for their space, so what’s the cost of maintaining a blog?

There are some people who would say it’s free because you haven’t paid anybody for the exposure. But this is wrong.

For every minute somebody spends writing a blog post they could have been working with other media. Designing an ad, say, or cold calling prospects.

They were paid their salary for each one of those minutes spent researching, brainstorming, writing, and publishing their blog posts.

Which means that knowing how long all of those activities took is the only way to measure the cost of your blog, and so how profitable it is. And the only way of measuring how long blogging takes is by tracking time.

Of course blogging isn’t the only activity that has time as its main cost element. The main cost of community management is time. The same for speaking at a conference or putting together a whitepaper.

Even with traditional advertising you need to add a time to figure out the true cost of a campaign - your team’s wages were being paid during every meeting they sat in. 

So the only way you can tell your boss that your blog - or ad campaign, or conference, or any other marketing activity -  is truly profitable is by tracking time. And which is more powerful for your boss to hear: 'more marketing budget should hopefully make us more money' or 'expanding the marketing budget will make us more profitable, and this is how'?

Tracking time improves efficiency

Let’s say your blog is profitable (you know this because you’ve started tracking the time spent on it). Bosses, of course, are never happy with just being profitable. They always want to know how something can be more profitable.

How does that work with a blog? You could ask for extra budget for guest blogging elsewhere or for a link building campaign, but extra spend is always risky. The easiest way to increase profit is usually to become more efficient. 

Let’s say you look at your time tracker for the past few months and notice it takes you four hours to write a blog post from start to finish.

Using this knowledge you can push yourself over the next few weeks to bring that average down to three and a half, then three. You reduce your costs - without reducing quality of course - and so increase your profit.

Another example could be improving meetings. We all feel like we spend too long in meetings and have all resolved at some point to reduce that time. But how long is 'long enough' for a regular meeting?

Your answer to that question might be very different to mine. But if you track time you can set a measurable goal:

Our weekly catch-up meeting with the sales team takes an hour. Let’s cut that down to 30 minutes. There are four of us there, so that will save us 104 man hours every year.

Agencies use lessons from tracking time to improve efficiency in all sorts of ways, from cutting down the length of meetings to getting specialist training that reduces skills gaps. In-house marketers could start learning those same lessons in exactly the same way.

Time tracking helps you remove bottlenecks

We’re all busy people, but some people seem to work longer hours than others. It might be that they’re extra-dedicated, but it might be that they have too much work.

It’s very important for a manager to know the difference, because one behaviour points to a high-performing team member but the other is a sign of low morale in the months to come. So how do you tell the difference? 

If you track how people spend their time and analyse the patterns in that data you can find out whether they’re in the office until 8pm because they want to be, or because they feel they need to be. Then you can take action to help their training or to discuss their workload.

Either way, tracking your team’s time gives you the data you need to improve their performance and their happiness.

You can also use that data to identify bottlenecks in your projects, and so improve your team’s performance as a whole. This is part of what makes time tracking great for improving a team’s efficiency.

It doesn’t stop there!

I think that being able to track ROI on an aspect of your marketing that other people really struggle to provide value on, improving your efficiency, and removing bottlenecks in your team’s work is reason enough to start tracking your time.

But there are all sorts of other benefits as well:

  • Agencies use time tracking to inform their estimates. If you start tracking yours then like them you will be better able to set clients’ (AKA your boss’s) expectations about deadlines.
  • Ever been told off for taking too long on a project when you know it’s because of scope creep, but been unable to prove it? If you track the time spent on each task you’ll be able to back up your case.
  • Want to improve your own productivity? Analyse your own working week in the same way as suggested for your blog and you might be surprised at where you can save time - and exactly how much.

Without numbers, you can’t set goals

Both measuring ROI and improving your efficiency are great examples of setting goals that make a real difference to your business.

In both cases, they will help your team to get better and to shine in the eyes of the people you report to. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a large corporation or a small business, these are the kinds of actions that will help cement your reputation.

And if you’re using the data you get from time tracking to help your team members become more efficient you’ll also end up with a happier team. Tracking your time can also help you reach your personal goals in productivity, efficiency, and how your boss perceives your work.

But if you don’t track your time accurately, these kinds of improvements will be beyond your reach. As the quote at the start of this post says, if you don’t measure it you can’t improve it.

Which means that instead of being a management tool for weeding out people who aren’t working as hard as some bloke from HR thinks they should, time trackers might just be the best tool available for helping your team and making them happier.

For more on agency life, read our post on how the agency model is changing or download the Top 100 Agencies Report.

Benjamin Morel

Published 30 September, 2014 by Benjamin Morel

Ben Morel is Digital Project Manager and marketing consultant at Obergine. He contributes to Econsultancy and speaks on a range of subjects connected to the digital world. You can connect with him on Twitter or on LinkedIn.

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Amy Katz

I absolutely agree that time tracking improves efficiency. Several months ago I started using actitime (www.actitime.com), since then my productivity has increased significantly. Now I can always say how many hours on what I have spent. This data helps me to make estimates for the future. The software I'm using also has invoice feature, so I can issue invoice in one click.

almost 4 years ago

Benjamin Morel

Benjamin Morel, Digital Project Manager at Obergine

Amy, there are loads of great tools out there and I would encourage anyone starting out with time tracking to try a couple.

In the office we have our own time entry system, so I use Toggl to actually track time; it's a simple tool with a good UI and an unobtrusive desktop app, which makes it perfect for that scenario. I also freelance, and for that I use Harvest because of the time-to-invoice feature and because I love the reports. I've also used Basecamp at previous agencies (before the cut the time tracking feature) and dabbled with TeamworkPM, which I dropped for Harvest. Both had their uses but ultimately weren't right.

I think the most important things to consider when choosing a tool are your goals and aims. There are so many out there you could easily make a poor choice and end up doing more or achieving less than you had hoped. But find one that supports what you want to do and it could be an important step towards improving your and your team's performance.

almost 4 years ago

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Caroline

Time tracking was the worst thing i was ever introduced to. This may be down to the fact that asking employees in large corporations to time track their work absolutely didn't make sense.
We ended spending our working time, despite the fact of being paid for 40 hours a week anyway, on logging time tracking, including 5 min breaks to go to the toilet.
So the matter of time tracking work is only correct for freelancers, not large organisations.

almost 4 years ago

Benjamin Morel

Benjamin Morel, Digital Project Manager at Obergine

Hi Caroline,

I completely agree with you in saying that logging time down to the smallest detail is both valueless and morale-sapping. It feels like the only reason it's happening is so that people can find things to tell you off about, and that feeling is made worse in a large company when in many cases the only people who see the report are faceless managers in HR. It feels like a waste of time because you never hear about how it's being used.

I would never say "you are supposed to work seven hours a day so your timesheets must always have seven hours a day in them" because tracking the number of hours you work for is something that interests HR and Big Brother. In fact I would go as far as to say I really don't want that data! Not only because it's too much information (your bowel movements are your own) but because it's too much data for me to process, and data I can't actually do anything with.

Instead I am advocating that managers in companies large and small take actionable data - things like how long meetings take, how long it takes to write a blog post, and how much time is spent on each ara of a project - and work with their team to learn and improve. I think that large companies actually stand to gain the most from this approach - if they can handle the cultural shift.

almost 4 years ago

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Mark Hirsch

Great article, Benjamin. In many cases, accurate time tracking is essential for proper billing and to understand client & project profitability. Most solutions provide timers or other manual tools for capturing & entering time, but those solutions are not addressing the core problem.

The real challenge of time tracking answers: "How did I spend my time?" (not "Where can I enter my time?") and then provides a simple way to review, adjust & submit timesheet data into pre-existing workflows. The user experience needs to be intuitive and exceptional. To be truly effective, such a system needs to be automatic, seamless...and MUST respect personal privacy so that data is only available to the employee until he/she submits it. It's about empowering the individual...not creating an Orwellian Big Brother state.

CreativeWorx TimeTracker (www.creativeworx.com) is a spectacular tool because it automatically captures and analyzes how people work to improve top-line revenue, bottom-line profitability and employee job satisfaction. By automating the process and respecting personal privacy, TimeTracker empowers professionals to be more effective while doing less work. It's a game-changer for anyone who wants to reduce their admin work and improve their productivity.

almost 4 years ago

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Glanna

If you are a manager or a business owner managing employees, it is important for you to ensure high productivity of your team. With a remote team it may be harder to ensure as of high productivity because you can’t keep as close tabs on everyone’s daily routine. Use of such time tracking tools is a great way for you to make certain (as best as possible) that your team is working on the tasks assigned to them. These tracking tools will help make sure that they are not spending their time lazily browsing the Interwebs, streaming videos unrelated to their jobs, or posting new Facebook statuses of their “easy new job working at home”. Not only do they keep your remote team more on task, more importantly they allow you to compare productivity of specific individuals and give feedback on how they are utilizing their time.

If you are looking for a cost efficient, cost effective, and simple tool that will help you track the time and the work completed by your remote employees, Worksnaps will do a great job.

almost 4 years ago

Benjamin Morel

Benjamin Morel, Digital Project Manager at Obergine

Glanna, I think in your haste to promote your tool you've somewhat missed the point of this article - and of my replay to Caroline. Seeing whether people are "not spending their time lazily browsing the Interwebs, streaming videos unrelated to their jobs, or posting new Facebook statuses" is really, really, really not the point of time tracking at all. The point is to gain actionable insight into how you and your team can improve.

Mark, a better attempt. I agree that for adoption time tracking needs to be simple. But again in your haste you seem to have missed my point.

almost 4 years ago

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Mark

Ben - I agreed with your point. Timesheet accuracy is paramount to understanding the true ROI, to improve efficiencies, and to optimize productivity. As you indicated: "if you don’t measure it you can’t improve it."

My point was that to accurately measure time spent, agencies must change how they get that data. Asking employees to enter that information without tools to help them capture their activities is not accurate. It's impossible for busy professionals to correctly remember and submit accurate timesheets at the end of the week...especially when billing codes are required. The research shows that timesheets are done with "best guess".

The industry needs to realize that the only way to get accurate timesheets is by leveraging technology that empowers individual employees to understand how they spent their time.

almost 4 years ago

Benjamin Morel

Benjamin Morel, Digital Project Manager at Obergine

Mark, I agree. That's why I use Toggl to track my time as I'm doing activities. It's the simplest solution I've found - and very importantly it means I can play with the data in any way I want.

That's the problem with tools that do the analysis for you - you end up asking the questions that are easiest with that tool, not the questions that are really important to your team.

almost 4 years ago

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Mindaugas Jocius, Project Manager at Resurs LT LLC

Cool tips, thanks for the post. At the moment I'm using Mobile Worker (http://mworker.com), which is all fine & very easy to use, but it only works for Android, and I'm planning to purchase an iPad and do most of the time tracking using it. Anyone knows a decent time tracker for Apple devices? Thanks.

almost 4 years ago

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