How to Motivate Your Employees to Track Time Without Tying it to Their Pay

Marcel Tit

Written by

Marcel Tit

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9 minutes

Let’s imagine for a second Eddie Murphy screaming out loud “Timesheeets!!” like he did during his famous stand-up comedy show, Delirious. Here’s a video for reference:


Funny, right?

Now replace the image of Eddie with your boss or manager.

You would instantly lose it and get into fight-or-flight mode.

To get a grip of the situation, you would clear up your desk, close a browser tab here and there, then open up your inbox for no reason only to ask yourself:

Why should I track time in the first place?

The time tracking myth

The general premise is that time tracking is tied up to productivity, which measures how efficient someone is at doing their job. Based on this input, managers cut costs and improve operations with a clear business objective in mind: to increase profits. Time is money after all. As Harvard Business Review points out, the US economy is losing $7.4 billion a day, the result of 50 million untracked work hours.

Nothing wrong with this finding, but let’s be honest: it’s easy to clock-in 8 hours and get little to nothing done. In fact, a new research from UK found out that we’re productive at work for only 2 hours and 53 minutes. The rest of the time is filled up with distracting activities like: browsing social media, reading news, and talking outside work activities with colleagues – to name the top three. This is a direct result of focusing on quantity instead of quality. It tricks us into thinking that we can stay on top of our work by just showing up and filling in timesheets.

Notice something? Yes, time tracking is in fact psychologically linked to productivity. It abides to the Parkinson’s law, which states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. Or to put it simply, if you give someone a week to complete a 4-hour task, it will take them a week. That’s because, in general, people estimate they need more time to prepare for a task. Even if they finish it faster, perfection sets in, and they’ll continue to fine-tune their work until the last moment (I’m guilty here too).

employee at desk

Sadly enough, some managers still use the 40-hour week as a benchmark for quality work. This doesn’t mean that time tracking can’t be useful. Through it, managers can accurately estimate task budgets and deadlines by monitoring how long they take on average. They can also become more transparent towards their customers and inform them in real time about the project progress.

This is all great, but what about you – the employee? Let’s see what makes it so hard to track time.

Why is it so hard to track time

There are numerous reasons for this.

You might fear being supervised to the minute – either by your boss or a software that takes random screenshots of your desktop – and regard it as a useless, administrative task. The problem is somewhere up at the management level, you say to yourself, who wants to quantify everything to cut costs. To them, these are only numbers, just like stationery and office furniture. But down there, on the first line, you’re supposed to meet deadline after deadline to add these numbers up.

Or, you find time tracking draining if you multitask on a daily basis. This means you need to remember what you’ve worked on, when, and for how long. It isn’t natural and requires tremendous amounts of cognitive power, an effort which can’t be easily mustered at the end of a full-day.

Some of you have your work visible to the whole team and feel under pressure because of this. I mean, who wouldn’t?

If things don’t go out as planned, everyone – not just the manager – can keep you accountable for it. You feel like you’re in a constant rush, which will soon reflect in the quality of your work.

Few of you will get why time tracking is important. From an economic standpoint, more billable hours can increase profits and create new opportunities for yourself and the company. Still, the same reasoning can make you fall for Parkinson’s law and focus on spending too many hours on a project (quantity) instead of making an impact (quality).

The purpose of time tracking

At a first glance, time tracking seems to be faulty because it doesn’t reflect what we actually do. In part it’s true, but take a step back to see the big picture.

Say you’ve spent more time on a task than expected. Does it mean that you’re a slowpoke?

Not at all. Perhaps this happened because the task wasn’t planned thoroughly from the beginning. Or there weren’t enough resources to complete it. Or you were waiting for someone’s else approval and that person wasn’t available at that moment.

The point is that time tracking has evolved and became more of a discovery tool that lets us zoom in on the whole perspective and less of a control measure for the upper management.

To reap its full benefits, a change in mentality is required. Ari Meisel, a productivity expert and the author of Less Doing, More Living, sums it up better:

“If you’re in the mindset of logging…every activity you’re doing, you’re actually going to be really hurting your productivity. That touch-in, touch-out mentality is very different from the mentality you need to do creative work, or research, or make an effective phone call.”

 

employees

That’s because highly-efficient people focus only on one thing at a time, leaving all the distractions aside. When a deadline is approaching, they use the time tracking induced rush as a catalyst to bring out the best version of themselves, “not as a crutch, excuse or a bane” – to paraphrase Seth Godin.

So how do you convince your employees to track time without interrupting their schedules and flows? Consider the next 6 tips for a smooth transition to time tracking:

1) Explain what’s in it for them

When implementing a time tracking system for the first time, the reasons behind it are not so clear for everyone. Enforcing it with no justification will only breed resistance and make things worse.

To avoid this, be honest and up-front. Explain why everyone needs to track their time and how does it benefit them, not just the company. Be careful though, motivation differs from person to person. That’s why it’s best to emphasize what’s in it for them depending on their roles.

For example, you could tell sales reps that accurate timesheets eliminate the chances of under-billing your services, which in return leads to larger profits and individual bonuses. With project managers you could argue that the same timesheets can help them see who’s over- or under-booked and better schedule their team’s tasks and workload in advance.

2) Make time tracking easy and flexible

Time tracking is a hard enough task in itself. You might as well ease out the process for your employees. Choose an intuitive project management software like Paymo, that allows them to fill in timesheets in a breeze and create customizable time reports with just a few clicks.

Think about their mobility as well. The software should include a mobile app, so that your employees can register time wherever they are, regardless of their Internet connection – in a cafe, at a client’s site, or on a business trip.

Imagine how convenient it is to open up your phone once the task is over and log in the worked hours, instead of waiting to get back to the office. It feels natural and empowers employees to focus on the task at hand, without having to add items to their mental to-do list.

employees discussing

3) Automate the entire time tracking process

What if your employees work in short intervals (10-15 minutes) on several parallel projects, that clocking in and out would only put them behind with work? In this case, you could automate the process altogether.

Choose an automatic time tracking tool that records how much time an employee spends on browsing the Internet, editing a document, or using certain desktop apps. This eliminates the need to remember what and for how long they’ve worked on in the first place. And in part your role as well. You won’t have to constantly remind them to log in their hours anymore.

PaymoPlus does the same thing. It runs in the background and records all the activities on the employee’s behalf, leaving no room for misinterpretation. At the end of the day, the employee can then match the activities with their corresponding projects and tasks, or set up rules to automate this step.

4) Have clear guidelines in place

As Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert comics, put it: forget about goals and focus on building a system instead. It doesn’t matter if your employees track time if they don’t do it the proper way. These are clear guidelines and procedures that everyone needs to follow to reap the full benefits of time tracking. But how do you set them?

Suppose you’re managing a PR team and work on launching an event. Your team arrives at the event venue and starts their day by having a small chat with the contractors and sponsors. When exactly should they start tracking time – at their arrival or when the guests show up? Does the time spent during event breaks count too? Should the time entries under 15 minutes be rounded or not?

These are all questions that will pop up throughout the conversation.

The key is to ask as many as possible and weigh in everyone’s opinion before mapping out the process. In the end, you’ll both benefit from it. Your employees will know how to accurately track time, while you’ll have access to an organized pool of data to dig in.

employee meeting

5) Lead by example – track your own time

Don’t force change from the sidelines. Especially if you’re part of a large company where things take time to roll out and get implemented. Be part of it and act as its main driving force.

If you track your own time, you will send strong signals to your employees. They will perceive the act as a valuable practice and something non-intrusive, if even their manager is not afraid to have their timesheets public.

As a general rule of thumb, train your managers who have a direct influence on teams first. Then, let them act as success champions and get the rest of the people on board. Employees will trust their colleagues much more than external contacts like the software’s support staff.

6) Ask for feedback

Waiting until something breaks to improve it spells disaster. Be proactive in your approach and ask your employees about feedback. After all, they’re the ones who “fight” in the first lines and because of this know the ins and outs of your business.

Make it easy for them to voice out their concerns and suggestions for improvement. Create a poll or survey to gather all the results. Then include them in the discussion meeting to scope out all potential problems and come up with a better system.

Being part of the solution will make it much easier for them to adopt the time tracking software. What’s more is that they’ll feel valued by the upper management and be encouraged to contribute in a meaningful way.

Don’t incentivize time tracking

If you wonder why we didn’t mention this as a tip, we did it on purpose. That’s because we’re against it. Some companies out there go to great lengths to gamify the entire time tracking process. They offer bonuses, Amazon gift cards, free lunches or days off to those who accurately fill in their timesheets. Although effective on the short term, these “carrot” like approaches only go so far.

At some point, employees get used to them and demand more money, more days off, more freebies. When this happens, they’ll soon think of ways to cheat the system and log as many hours as possible. In return, the quality of their work will suffer as they’ll be focusing on the wrong metric – hours logged in instead of results delivered. Recognize what they fell for? Yes, the Parkinson’s law.

Final thoughts

Now that we’ve debunked the time tracking myth, we can focus more on making an impact at our workplace instead of logging hours mechanically and cursing our managers for it. Remember this as you go through your day, and see the time induced rush as a way to bring the best out of yourself.

For all the managers out there reading this, a word of advice. As with any software, don’t dive in head first. Test a couple of tools first and see which one fits your current and future business needs. Luckily, Paymo offers a free trial for 2 weeks, so you can experience the full-featured app with no strings attached.

Regardless of what solution you’ll choose, you’ll get something much more valuable in return than just metrics: a stress-relieved environment, where everyone is free to manage their time and express their genuine self. A true hallmark for a happy culture.

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