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Project management is modern, knowledge-based work, so you might not think of timesheets when you think about project management. It’s unlikely that people in offices today clock in and out of work with an antiquated punchcard machine.

So why are we even talking about timesheets?

In project management, time tracking through timesheets (albeit in digital form) is an important part of making sure you know whether the team is making progress on their tasks. That’s the headline, but the benefits of timesheets go much further than that.

We’ve created the ultimate guide to timesheets and time tracking on projects.

The History of Timesheets

Time tracking is simply recording what hours you and your team members spend doing project work. The main tool available for time tracking is the timesheet. The New York Times Magazine reports that the American Bar Association pushed the idea of charging for services in hourly blocks in the 1950’s. They were worried that the income of lawyers was falling behind that of doctors and dentists, so they published information to members that encouraged them to ditch fixed-fee projects and bill for their time instead.

If you want to bill in units of time, you need to record billable hours. Timesheets are therefore a critical requirement for many service industries.

Some project teams working in consultancy or agency environments will bill for the time that their team spends on projects but for many project managers the value of timesheet tools is that they provide an easy way to see what the team is working on at any time.

Timesheet tools today are normally online apps, either integrated as part of your project management software or a separate product.

Timesheets – Good or Evil?

Managers tend to fall into two camps when it comes to time tracking: they either understand the value of doing it and are huge supporters, or they don’t see the point and believe it undermines trust in the team.

If you fall into the second camp then hopefully this will explain why you should be reconsidering tracking time on your projects.

It’s a truism that you can only manage what you measure. Successful project managers know how far through their project they are at any time. This information helps them establish whether they are ahead or over budget and whether they are likely to hit their upcoming deadlines. Unless you know how long a task has taken, and can compare that to how long it was scheduled to take, then understanding the performance of your project is much harder.

The Many Uses for Timesheets

There are lots of reasons to use timesheets, besides just for tracking hours. Here are the three most common:

  1. To build a database of historical information about how long tasks take.
    The output from time tracking is timesheets that show how long an individual spent doing a particular task. This is very valuable data because many of those tasks will happen again in the future. Your time tracking data repository will let you estimate better in the future because you can draw from real-life data.For example, let’s say you estimate that preparing the wireframes for a new website will take 5 days. You put that on the project schedule and it automatically feeds through to the timesheets for the relevant resources. They complete the timesheets with the actual time spent on doing the wireframes. The wireframes take two people 4 days, so that’s 8 days of effort in total. The next time you come to estimate the task for creating wireframes, you can use the real data of 8 days and create a far more accurate project schedule.

  2. For billing clients
    This one is pretty obvious. As we saw above, if your commercial model relies on charging clients for your time then you need to know how much time to charge them for. Timesheets also give you the detail so you can spell out exactly what you did on a project. This is helpful if ever your invoices are queried and especially when work takes longer than planned because of changes the client requested.
  3. To manage your workload
    People are often surprised when they start to track their time, because they can see exactly where they are spending the most effort. And it isn’t always where it should be. Timesheets can be really helpful in pointing out why you aren’t as efficient as you think you should be, because they flag up where your time is going. This helps you manage your workload more efficiently both during a single day and also over a longer period of time like a week.

There are plenty of other reasons why timesheets will soon be your new favorite project management tool. Watch our PMP expert Jennifer Bridges talking about 7 surprising uses for timesheets in this video.

Timesheets in Detail

Time tracking systems generally include the following data:

  • The name of the user: This is the person who is completing the timesheet. Managers may have access to complete timesheets on behalf of other people in the team.
  • Date: Timesheets typically show a week to view. The date field lets you navigate through the calendar and enter your working time for a particular week.
  • Project: Timesheets can group tasks by project (this is how it works in ProjectManger.com) to make it easier for the user to see what they are recording at a glance.
  • Task: The list of tasks that the user has been allocated to work on that are not yet marked as complete.
  • Days of the Week: The rest of the timesheet columns display the days of the week. Mark the hours worked on each task against the correct days.
  • Auto-totals: Columns and rows will automatically total so that you can see at a glance how many hours you have worked in a day or on a particular task.
  • Notes: Add comments and upload files to timesheet entries to remind yourself of what the task was about or to note why it took longer (or less time) than expected.

You’ll also see lines on the timesheet that do not directly tie back to tasks on the project schedule. These could be things like sickness, vacation time, team meetings, training and so on. These tasks take up time during the working week but don’t necessarily contribute directly to a project.

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ProjectManager.com’s Timesheet view

From all the information on your team’s timesheets you can easily see:

  • Who is working on what
  • What tasks are still outstanding
  • What tasks are going to overrun their scheduled time
  • Who is really busy and logging lots of hours
  • Who isn’t recording many hours and may have capacity to pick up more work.

As you can see, time recording can give you lots of valuable information for managing your project!

How Do You Complete a Timesheet?

The easiest timesheets to complete are those that link automatically to your project schedule. You’ll save a lot of time on entering the task data if all you have to do is pick the tasks from a list. Whether it’s automatically integrated and therefore pre-populated or not, you’ll need a list of tasks on your timesheet before you can complete it.

Once your tasks are there you simply mark how many hours you did on each task on each day. If you are working on tasks that are not reflected in your project schedule then you’ll need to talk to your manager to get those added if you are unable to do it yourself.

How Often Should You Complete A Timesheet?

There is no hard and fast rule about this but it’s generally better to complete them as soon as you can so you remember what you spent your time on. If you don’t have that many tasks you can complete them once a week. If you have a lot of separate tasks to do in a day then it’s better to spend a few minutes recording your time just before you leave the office each day.

Pro Tip: Block out time in your diary each week to complete, check and submit your timesheets. Then you’ll never forget.

How To Manage Absences and Vacations

Sometimes you won’t want to record time against project activity because a staff member is off sick or on annual leave. The easiest way to manage this is to set up an ‘admin’ task called ‘Sickness’ or ‘Vacation’ and have them record their normal working hours against that instead.

When a period of downtime affects everyone, such as closing the office for a holiday, you can change the working hours in the master calendar so that your team doesn’t have to record time on those days.

Should You Keep Timesheets Confidential?

Timesheet data isn’t confidential in ProjectManager.com because in theory your team should know what you are working on and vice versa. There’s really nothing sensitive in the high level task name for the vast majority of project scheduling information. If it has been scheduled, your team can see the scheduled task anyway.

How to Overcome Resistance to Using Timesheets

One of the concerns that you may hear from managers is that the team doesn’t want to use timesheets. It can be daunting to move to time recording when you haven’t previously worked like that. Introducing time tracking is a cultural change for many organizations.

If there is resistance in your organization, take a step back and ask why there is that level of opposition. It could be because:

  • They feel timesheets are a lot of work
  • They feel micromanaged
  • They feel that timesheets could be used to penalize staff who don’t log enough hours.

Or it could be something else.

The best way to deal with these concerns is to sit with the team and explain what you are doing to address them. For example, if they are worried that completing their timesheets will be a hassle, show them how easy it is to click and submit using online time tracking software (and there are more tips on saving time below).

When you know why team members are resistant to tracking their time you can manage their concerns individually.

How to Save Time When Time Tracking

Time tracking in itself is an additional task to do. However, it doesn’t have to be onerous.

If you regularly complete the same tasks for the same projects then you can use the “Copy Last Week” feature to auto-populate your timesheet for this week. Either hit save straightaway or make a few tweaks and submit it.

You can even save time when you’re creating a bespoke timesheet for this week. If your time tracking software links to your project schedule you can “Auto-Fill” to pull through the tasks that you have been assigned, saving you the job of typing them out. The added benefit here is that they’ll automatically feed your time data back to the project schedule, updating the task to show how much effort has been spent on it to date.

Jennifer Bridges, PMP, has more tips on how to streamline the time tracking process in this video.

Next Steps for Time Tracking

The easiest way to see the benefits of time tracking is to start recording time. ProjectManager.com CEO Jason Westland spells out how to get started with time tracking in this article:

Over time, timesheets will become the norm for your team and completing them will be just another quick task to do. Soon you’ll wonder how you ever managed to run your projects without the rich data that time tracking provides. It won’t be long before your estimates improve, confidence in your ability to hit deadlines improves and all of that will be reflected in your project success rates.

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