Discover more from Rafael Alvarez
For years, when it comes to my style of managing teams of engineers, one of the things I'm known for has to do with accurately tracking work time. In this article I’ll demonstrate the evolution of my ideas over the course of more than 15 years of experience as a designer and user of time-tracking systems, as well as an analyst of the data they generate.
This article is mainly geared towards roles that are essentially computer jobs within the context of an employee working for a company, who in turn participates in a market governed by perfect competition with fixed wage layouts.
My main objective in using these rigorous tracking systems has always been to obtain as objective a view as possible of the resources that are actually invested in carrying out a specific task. Everything centers around this point: understanding reality as accurately as possible. Any obstacle that stands in the way of this goal must be eliminated.
Objective tracking serves a higher purpose, a long-term application, and that is to enable a sound platform for rational and fair decision-making. It does not seek to maximize productivity, nor minimize the consumption of resources, nor supervise, nor pressure; it seeks only the first goal: to objectively evaluate reality so that subsequent decisions on estimation, allocation, remuneration, rest, relocation and prices will be tenable and fair.
When it comes to implementing accurate time-reporting systems, the biggest obstacle is theself-perception of hard work. Human beings always tend to think they work judiciously and more than others. Therefore, when time-reporting systems are based on arbitrary judgments of how long you think it’s taken you to perform a certain task, you inevitably report more time than was actually spent. Humans tend to overestimate themselves, and the perception of their effort is no exception. For this reason, the first step towards accuracy is for work time to be reported automatically.
Systems that allow this do so through timers, mouse supervision, keyboard and screen monitoring, downtime alerts, and website classification, allowing for an accurate view of time use in computer-intensive work.
The main objection to this is based on invasion of privacy. However, as long as users are given the option to interrupt tracking whenever they wish to take breaks for personal activities, it is nothing of the sort. With this feature, privacy is maximized, time tracking is accurate and users are given control to work at their own pace without affecting actual work time.
Another classic objection stems from the new generations’ insistence on their capacity to multitask. That is, to work and not work at the same time (because only working is out of the question).
People who pride themselves on having the ability to multitask should contribute to global productivity by becoming research subjects at a laboratory! To date, research in human behavior demonstrates these multitaskers would be the exception and not the rule since the brain is only able to perform one intelligent task at a time. Also, additional initial loading time or post-interruption time is required. The only additional activities that can be performed flawlessly at the same time are things as mechanical as breathing.
That is, either you’re a scientific anomaly worthy of experimentation that has the ability to perform two intelligent activities at once, or actually your job consists of performing one intelligent activity and several mechanical ones. If you want to read blogs, chat, watch videos, or gossip on Facebook, go ahead: pause your work and concentrate on an active break that gives real rest. If, on the other hand, you really can do several intelligent things simultaneously, you can use these tracking systems to demonstrate your supernatural productivity and be rewarded accordingly.
In this style of time tracking it is important to clarify two concepts from a measurement point of view: Potential Work Time and True Work Time. Potential Work Time is the amount of work time established on an employee contract. In Colombia the maximum work time is 48 hours per week. This refers to how much time an employee commits to in exchange for pay. However, there is a cultural consensus and tacit agreement that this time is more of a range of employee availability than an actual work requirement.
For this we need to understand the concept of True Work Time: percentage of potential work time that an employee actually dedicates to a particular task (client, project, etc.). During 2013 and 2014, data was collected and analyzed on a Colombian engineering team of 30 people, who used and still use automatic time tracking systems without explicit True Work Time requirements. It was found that the employees who manage personnel, projects and administrative functions had a True Work Time range of 90% to 100%.
Engineers, on the other hand, in the vast majority of cases, ranged from 60% to 80% of True Work Time. This shows that the type of work has a direct influence on True Work Time, and that 100% of True Work Time in some tasks is feasible, whereas over-exertion is totally out of the ordinary.
This point indicates another crucial aspect of my time management philosophy: no time quotas. Having a total time report goal only leads to useless input and therefore actually hinders us from our objective of perceiving reality as it is. There is no such thing as a True Work Time goal. People should not be told to report X time a day, Y time a month or estimate Z time total. Instead, people should be told to report reality and leave it up to each person’s conscience to use their Potential Work Time wisely.
When you set a quota, Parkinson’s Law comes into effect: work will expand to fill the time allotted for its completion. The capacity of an employee to achieve a task in less time is absolutely nullified. Managers naturally want to see Potential Work Time utilized 100% in all roles, but this is simply impossible. People need breaks, some more than others. People have different work rhythms. Our duty as managers is simply to observe what happens to ensure that everything is within reason.
Reasonable and recommended margins for deeper analysis of True Work Time are anywhere between 70% and 90%. In a 48-hour work week, 70% of True Work Time is equivalent to 6.6 working hours per day for 5 days. In other words, a 33-hour workweek. This is a more accurate reflection of reality, and is actually lower than successful model countries like Australia who have a 38-hour workweek.
On the other hand, reporting times of over 90% could be a warning sign that the person allows no space for informal interaction with peers, or a sign of voluntary over-exertion that could lead to burnout. If you notice someone working too much, your attention is required as well, if the company wishes to retain this employee in the long run.
Here it’s important to mention that we are human beings and not machines, and therefore any analysis of True Work Time on a specific day or week would be wrong. As humans we have irregular True Work Times. For this reason I recommend calculating trends using a rolling average, where each day you analyze for example the previous 20 days: simply add the previous day and subtract the first day of the period. With this method you can always view a long period of Potential Work Time and True Work Time, making daily decisions based on relevant data samples.
The most common question that comes up when using these systems is, What is reportable and what isn’t? Answers are derived from the most basic principle related to our initial goal: If it’s work-related it’s always reportable, regardless of whether it’s requested or not.
For example, it’s reasonable for a person who is formally studying a topic of interest to the organization to report that time as training time. Likewise, time spent on commuting between cities and three or more commutes in a single day (the first two distances are equivalent to going to and from the office) is taken into account.
At this point we can see that in some situations, manual reporting is the only option, since during such times as work lunches, phone calls, travel, meetings or conferences the computer is not available. With this in mind, it is perfectly possible to report times manually, and it is imperative to do so in order to be able to assign them to the corresponding cost centers. For this situation, the recommended control derived from the aforementioned data analysis is to group employees into one of two possible role categories: highly and moderately computer intensive. The first are the engineers themselves, the second being administrative and commercial staff whose roles contain extensive human interaction.
To allow detailed individual analysis my suggestion of ranges at which to be alerted would be these: For an employee in a highly computer intensive role, manual reports of more than 20% of True Work Time; for an employee in a moderately computer intensive role, manual reports for more than 50% True Work Time would be cause for concern.
Regarding this suggestion, once the alerted range is reached, I say that at no time is an employee’s True Work Time to be questioned, because there’s always the possibility that the employee is working while the reporting system is not in use. Only conversations over two or more months can lead to the conclusion that there are real problems with how this employee manages their time, and what critical decisions must be made regarding their relationship to the company.
In the event that an employee’s True Work Time exceeds 100%, I recommend redistributing responsibilities, extending delivery deadlines and immediately allocating compensatory time off. If an employee report shows less than 70% of True Work Time, and investigation proves it reflects reality and not simply a reporting flaw, increase the level of assignments or shorten delivery deadlines.
Note that this is never about simply reporting more; it is about verifying whether or not the reporting tool is being used properly, and then reducing or increasing the person’s workload so that a fair balance is achieved for the whole team.
This goal seeks precisely to make the salary the only thing that differentiates some hours from others, and not that salary and generalized idle time make the distinction between the more and less productive people.
Time-tracking critics’ main argument is to say that not all hours are created equal, and that one person can accomplish in one hour what another person would do in eight.
Paradoxically, I absolutely agree. I believe that everyone’s outcome is different, and that this difference in value should be rewarded by salary, and not by idle time.
If we look carefully at the following scenario posed by “high achievers”, we will see just how important objective time reporting is.
Orozco Hare earns $2M COP per month. He can easily accomplish Task A in just 2 hours, but takes a full 8-hour workday to do so. Jaramillo Tortoise earns $1M COP per month. It takes her 4 hours to perform Task A. The remaining 4 hours of the day she performs additional Type A tasks.
When analyzing productivity, one might say that Hare is twice as productive as Tortoise. However, if we incorporate the concept of salary and True Work Time, we realize that the Hare required 1/20th of a salary (one full day out of the 20 working days of the month: 2 hours working and 6 hours idling) to do Task A, equivalent to a productivity of $100K COP per Type A task.
Meanwhile, Tortoise required 1/40th of a salary to perform Task A, because although she spent twice as much time as Hare, she corrected the situation by using her Potential Work Time 100%, thereby rendering a productivity of $25K per Type A tasks.
In short, not all hours are created equal, and this is reflected by the salary. To maintain wage equity it is imperative to maintain a relative standard of True Work Time throughout the team, both to control excess (over-exertion) and deficit (idleness).
In the previous example, assuming both Hare and Tortoise were to perform their jobs with equal quality, their salaries are perfectly balanced and fair. Hare, who is twice as productive, makes twice as much as Tortoise.
But when True Work Time differs, the situation deteriorates to the point that the true total productivity of Tortoise is 4 times more than Hare’s, and she’s getting paid half as much. In other words, giving someone who works 20% of their time the same wage as someone who works 80% of their time not only generates a negative impact on the team but also creates a real problem of unequal pay.
Another common objection to time reporting relates to the use of measurement systems by goals or results and not by resources used. Once again, I completely agree with this objection. I simply believe that it’s inconsistent within the framework of contract type.
In other words, you can’t profess to be “measured” by results, something that is typical of a service contract, and at the same time have an employment contract where results are out of reach. Therefore, I agree that a person does not have to report time when the contract governing the employment relationship is based on fulfillment of a clear and defined result.
The easiest example to use here is that of a business person. If a person has a clearly defined role with an explicit mission—such as the marketing of Software Z—and their compensation is defined as 10% of collected sales, obviously the time spent is inconsequential, since their productivity is embedded in and controlled by the compensation.
Additionally, in this framework, the risk of unproductivity or failure to achieve results is transferred from the investor to the worker, therefore the administrative control function is incorporated. It’s absurd, then, to expect:
variable or unknown work time and
measurement by results where non-compliance makes no difference.
Expecting steady income without investing resources or taking risks is unheard of even for the most sophisticated of investors with preferential shares.
Once the concept of time reporting is overcome, another aspect of infinite discussion is the granularity of it, that is, to which object do I report the time I am working. The possibilities are innumerable as I can report to an activity, a deliverable, a milestone, a project, a service, a client, etc.
Here the recommendation is to start with the largest possible level so that all times can be grouped and mathematical operations with said data can be performed. It is useless to report to activities and/or deliverables if all efforts of several people on the same grouping object are not later analyzed. The best way to implement this is to start with reports to a project or customer independent of the activity or to the deliverable of the same. In this way you can always unite all efforts and intersect corresponding revenues to build profitability.
In those internal activities where the client is unknown and therefore has no associated income, the best thing is to report to first level profit and loss accounts so that times can be multiplexed to allocate precise costs to corresponding accounts: operational sales expenses and operational administration expenses.
Automated objective time-reporting systems are the basis for maintaining an equal-pay-based, healthy work culture, built on facts and objectivity and not the whims or perceptions of a manager, when
They are clear on the agreed-upon Potential Work Time.
They understand that we are all human and we’re available during said time but we only work for part of it.
They use a rolling average to get an accurate trend of behavior, which, as always with humans, will be irregular.
They stem from good faith (assuming first that an issue is due to underreporting and not underworking).
They are uneven in the relationship between employee and company, compensating over-exertion and neutral towards absenteeism.
In short, automatic time-tracking systems do the following:
They do not seek to make us work all the time, they seek to make us work fairly.
They do not seek to supervise, they seek simply to learn how much work is actually done.
They seek for those who work excessively to have rest, and for those who work less than agreed upon to work reasonably.
They see to it that everyone has a similar True Work Time in which salary does make the difference, where people earn $1M and others earn $6M precisely because their performance in similar conditions is 6 times higher.
They seek to create a healthy and separate work/life balance, which is different from the idea that leading companies try to sell, where mixing work and personal environments seems to be the model to follow. This only leads to the invasion of family spaces, the perception of giving more than what is received or of working all the time in exchange for a great salary that consumes your life.
They seek to objectively evaluate the resources a person spends in accordance with the nature of the employer and employee contract, since compensation for results, although a possible scenario, must be associated with well-defined and permanent results in the labor relationship, an issue that in the knowledge industry is utopic.
In short, it’s not about working smarter instead of harder, but rather working reasonably and fairly, so that smart work will make a tangible difference to all sides.