How to Get Accurate Timesheets

Part II in our series on Timesheets. See our previous post How to Get Your Team to Use Timesheets, by Jason Westland. 

A study reported in HBR says that businesses lose $50k a year in billable revenue because the data in timesheets is inaccurate. If tasks are never accounted for on timesheets then they can’t be recorded. You can’t bill for work that gets lost on the way to data entry.

Even if only an infinitesimal percentage of those “lost” hours relate to your company, and even if you don’t bill clients for the work you spend on their projects, accurate data in your online timesheet system is essential. It lets you keep a handle on whether the team is hitting the deadlines they set themselves and helps you predict future scheduling problems based on past performance. In short, the data in timesheets is powerful. 

The Problems with Inaccurate Timesheets

Everyone in your company knows the theory of timesheets. They know that the data they enter needs to reflect reality. And yet still you find people who don’t, or can’t fill in their timesheets. Let’s look at some of the problems caused by inaccurate timesheet data.

  • Loss of revenue, as we saw above.
  • Inability to see if projects are paying off because the return on investment figures are skewed when resource time isn’t included accurately.
  • Inability to track whether project tasks are taking the length of time they were scheduled for.
  • Lack of historical data to use in the future to improve project estimates.
  • Inability to see who is overworked (and clocking in too many hours) and who has capacity to take on more tasks.

Finally, you might want to take research by analyst firm Aberdeen into account. They report that 63% of best-in-class organizations have implemented time tracking against projects compared to 52% of all other businesses. While I’m hesitant to draw sweeping conclusions from that statistic it seems as if business success is linked in some way to being able to measure employee activity and productivity.

Why Are Timesheets Inaccurate?

There are some fundamental reasons why it’s difficult to record time accurately in today’s business environment. We juggle lots of projects, so it’s rare to spend one complete day on any particular activity. In any given 8-hour work period you could be working on four or five initiatives, or even more. It can take just a few seconds to reply to an email saying “Thanks” or “The meeting is scheduled for Tuesday.” We jump between interactions like this, dealing with hundreds of emails and instant messages a day. It’s impossible to log every 10-second communication or every 30 seconds spent listening to a voicemail.

Timesheets are an additional task; a management overhead. They are rarely embedded formally in the working processes so they become an afterthought, something to do on a Friday afternoon before you can clock off for the week. If they remember to do them at all, that is.

Any delay in remembering to fill in timesheets simply makes the data even less accurate. I can’t remember what I was doing this time last week, not to the degree of accuracy that would make recording my time valuable. I could tell you what I achieved in terms of hitting big project milestones, but there is too much going on each day to accurately report how I got there and how much time I took to do it.

Finally, it’s hard to work out where to put the hours of effort that aren’t directly related to projects. What about that team building lunch – was that work or not? What about time spent giving an induction presentation to a new starter, or meeting your mentor for coffee? Someone has to organize the office bowling event or hire a new cleaning firm. This work revolves around things that would never count as billable hours in the professional services sector, but that are essential for keeping the team motivated and the business functioning. But they don’t neatly map to tasks on a project schedule.

If this sounds like a nightmare, it’s not. In fact, you’ll find in time that you love timesheet because they help you with your project. Don’t believe me, then watch the embedded video below, where Jennifer Bridges, PMP, explains “Why Filling Timesheets Is Not That Bad.”

Getting Accurate Data

Let’s look now at some ways to improve the accuracy of timesheets, starting with assessing what level of accuracy you are prepared to accept.

#1. Understand Why Accuracy Matters

If you don’t bill clients for your work, does accuracy really matter to you? It might do because it’s good for creating accurate estimates. Historical data feeds future project requirements and planning. But accuracy to the n-th degree might not be necessary for what you want to do (or have the organizational maturity to do) with your data.

Set realistic expectations for the level of accuracy you will be able to achieve and what you are prepared to accept from your team.

scheduling timesheets in half-day chunks

#2. Use Timesheets

Doh. You’d think that this goes without saying but I’m going to say it anyway. If you need to capture timesheet data you need a mechanism to do so. And no, a spreadsheet doesn’t cut it. These days there are a plethora of apps for time recording, so get one.

#3. Read the Reports

Your team are doing their timesheets, so do them the courtesy of reading the reports. Use a tailored dashboard to flag up tasks that are ahead or behind schedule and put some time aside each week to delve into the detail.

Then feedback to the team. Talk to those people who are booking too many hours and deal with their overloaded To Do list. Carry out a brief quality check too: I know managers who have spotted a member of staff recording work time while he was actually on holiday. It wasn’t malicious, it was simply a timesheet error but one that would have had far-reaching consequences for keeping the project on track if it hadn’t been spotted early.

#4. Link Timesheets to Schedules

The easiest way to build accuracy in to your timesheets without having to do anything extra is to link them to your project schedule. Integrated project management software auto-populates timesheets with the tasks that your team has been assigned.

At the end of the day they can easily record the time spent on each activity across all their projects and all their tasks.

It works both ways too: your project schedules update as individuals record their hours. This has the added benefit of flagging up tasks that are likely to take longer than expected as soon as there is cause to be concerned. You can then dive in to deal with the problem and adjust the overall schedule to stay on track.

Online project management software with integrated timesheets takes away the burden of using two applications and duplicating effort. can do it all for you. Automatically link project tasks to time recording and monitor progress with dashboards driven real-time timesheet data. See how you could streamline your time recording by taking a free trial today.

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