Avoiding redundancy

Avoiding redundancy October 25, 2005

Pointy
So the word from on high is that we've all got to start keeping track of our time at work. As in writing down everything we do and how long it takes. As in:

9:01 – 9:08 a.m. Checked office e-mail. Read note from supervisor about need to keep track of time.

9:08 – 9:10 a.m. Received verbal assurance from supervisor that: A) They're "serious" about this; B) It wasn't his idea and that he also views it as a "colossal [unintelligible]."

9:11 – 9:20 a.m. Reassured several coworkers that this could mean lots of things other than large-scale pending layoffs.

9:21 – 9:55 a.m. Stared into space while trying to imagine what this could possibly mean other than large-scale pending layoffs.

9:55 – 10:00 a.m. Created Excel spreadsheet and logged this entry and those above.

Seriously, is there any way to keep track of the time spent keeping track of one's time without it coming across as sarcastic?

I suppose it's possible that this exercise might have some purpose other than thinning the herd for eventual layoffs. It could, for example, be part of an attempt to improve efficiency by systematically reviewing everyone's daily workload. Such an effort would need to be carefully explained, however, to ensure honest and objective participation. Without such a careful explanation — and without employees' trust that this was an honest process and not just the prelude to layoffs — all this process will produce is a well-padded series of CYA memos. And I'm not sure an approach guaranteed to lower workplace morale is really the wisest first step in any effort to improve productivity.

What I'm wondering is this: Has anyone ever had the chutzpah to respond to such a request appropriately — which is to say, in kind? "Certainly, sir. I'd be glad to keep track of my workflow for you. And, you know, it would also be beneficial to me to better understand how you spend your time, so for the next week …"

If anybody ever did that, they're my hero. Anyway, I gotta go. I have to get ready for my meeting with the Two Bobs.


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  • none

    Lemme think… Uhh… Err… Nope, tracking one’s activities during the workday IS absolutely ridiculous. And it does not necessarily mean the management is planning layoffs – although it is quite likely. Same thing happened at my previous job (a university) before the management layed off cca. 20% of the teaching staff. As it turns out, I was first to be fired.
    But there is really no need to worry, this could mean a lot of different things. When they bring in a consulting firm in to assess the company efficiency, THEN you’re boned.
    Oh by the way, I wonder what will the 10:04 entry on your activity log read?

  • bulbul

    Darn, quick fingers. That was me.

  • 12xu

    Every couple of years we are told to start keeping track of how we spend our time. The reasoning they give is that they want to know how much labor goes to each project so that they can have a more realistic view of how much each project actually costs, and maybe use that to forecast future project costs. This isn’t so bad if you happen to be working on a single project, but if you are jumping around between things a lot, it sucks.
    What usually happens is that most people remember to keep track for a couple of weeks (read: make something up at the end of the week), then forget about it after that. Nothing is ever said about the failure to keep track.

  • Jay

    Bob Porter: Looks like you’ve been missing a lot of work lately.
    Peter Gibbons: I wouldn’t say I’ve been missing it, Bob!

  • Indiana Joe

    I used to have to keep track of what hours I spent doing particular job tasks. I found this extremely annoying, because I frequently changed tasks several times in an hour. I did my dutiful best, though, and made sure to include the time I spent keeping track of my time (~1/2 hour/week, and roundoff errors (~1 hour/week).
    I don’t think the company does this any more.

  • Ray

    I can top that for intrusiveness. Our department recently had a ‘day in the life of’ exercise, where half a dozen senior managers would spend the day in the department, each one sitting behind someone, watching them work all day. In fairness, they did their best not to annoy, and spent some time convincing people it wasn’t about the individual being watched, or preparing for layoffs, but there’s nothing quite as nerve-frazzling as having someone sitting watching you all day…

  • Edward Liu

    Lawyers don’t seem to have much trouble tracking how much time they spend on any given case per day. However, they also charge by the hour, so it is clearly in their best interests to keep careful track of where the time goes. At least, for the honest ones, it’s in their interest. The dishonest ones LOOK like they keep careful track, but they also tend to have 75 hour days. If you’re not charging by the hour, then this sort of thing is a useless, pointless, stupid exercise.
    Anybody else also notice how timesheets and these sorts of schedules are all read-only systems? Anytime you need to get useful information out of them (like, say, how much time you actually spent on a given project, or how many vacation days you have left), nobody but nobody seems to be able to extract this information from the system.
    I suggest you fabricate about 3-5 spreadsheets with pre-filled time logs and cycle through them, changing the date and resubmitting appropriately. Maybe every now and then, you can change the times. I guarantee you nobody will notice.

  • Edward Liu

    Erk, sorry, that’s “WRITE only systems.” You write data in, nothing ever comes out.

  • diddy

    I have people skills! Can’t you understand that? What the hell is wrong with you people?

  • Davis X. Machina

    Maybe every now and then, you can change the times. I guarantee you nobody will notice.
    I wrote out all my hall and library passes in German in a big — 1200 student — high school for an entire semester before anyone noticed — and that was the German teacher….

  • Scorpio

    Our boss actually gave us a copy of his to use as an example. It included coffee refills and restroom trips. ARGH!
    We did this micro-crap for three months, then were excused from doing it. It did not signal impending layoffs, either.

  • Scorpio

    Our boss actually gave us a copy of his to use as an example. It included coffee refills and restroom trips. ARGH!
    We did this micro-crap for three months, then were excused from doing it. It did not signal impending layoffs, either.

  • Scorpio

    Our boss actually gave us a copy of his to use as an example. It included coffee refills and restroom trips. ARGH!
    We did this micro-crap for three months, then were excused from doing it. It did not signal impending layoffs, either.

  • Steve

    And don’t forget to add the cover sheet for the TPS report. You did get the memo on that, right?

  • Steve

    And don’t forget to add the cover sheet for the TPS report. You did get the memo on that, right?

  • Magical Truthsaying Bastard Spidey

    9:01 – 9:05 a.m. Threw together Perl script to randomly generate plausible activity log entries.

  • Craig Richardson

    I used to work for a group (within a large corporation) that contracted out to do projects for our customers. Our billing policies were left over from the time when 95%+ of customers were the DOD or DOE. So, to prevent fraud, waste, and/or abuse, we had to log our time, in 15-minute increments, to the contract we were working on (with pseudo-contracts for e.g. sick leave).
    One would think this would be a great source of raw data to be used for tracking actual vs. estimated labor, allowing improvement in bidding for future contracts. We thought so, and not only suggested this at every opportunity, but were especially careful to track overtime hours – not just because we got (sometimes formal, sometimes informal, based on contract) comp time for them, but because, for a contractor, systemic overtime means that the contract was drastically underbid.
    Upper management told us to stop. When we were on a contract that did not specifically address how overtime was to be handled, they had no interest in how much we actually worked. So we were told – given specific instruction – to fabricate our timesheets and say that we only worked 8 hours a day. So much for fraud, waste, and abuse.

  • Michael “Vendor X” Heaney

    Genuinely absurd assignments like “self productivity tracking” should, in my mind, always be seen as vehicles for amusing self expression.
    11:30-11:45am – Aided joint Tokyo/US military force in defending copier from Mecha-Godzilla.
    11:45-11:55am – Scavanged for food amid debris.
    12:00pm – Hot pockets, oh merciful god!
    I dunno, the one and only time any employer suggested this, I recommended that if they wanted my daily movements recorded, their best bet was to pay someone to follow me around the office.

  • Reuben

    This is one of my biggest peeves at any job I have ever had, and one which I persistently refuse to abide by. Sure, that attitude generally harms me insofar as my ‘climbing a ladder’ but I could honestly care less. Yes, its made me quite poor as a result (used to make six figures) but so what? Gotta stand for what you believe in. And I refuse, absolutely, to cave and just settle in to the cubicle-sheep-drone mode ever ever again.

  • Duane

    As a director who sometimes tasks individuals with tracking their time, the goal is generally not for me to see what they are doing. Rather, the goal is for them to see how productive they are (not) being. It usually works.
    It is important to remember at a job that we are looking for accomplishments, not activity.

  • spencer

    Seriously, is there any way to keep track of the time spent keeping track of one’s time without it coming across as sarcastic?
    The only two options are sarcastic or fictitious.
    I usually opt for “fictitious,” which keeps me employed, but may lead to a negative performance review with St. Peter . . .

  • Jacob Davies

    In my experience this is usually a very poor manager who is panicking that he either has no idea what anyone does, or is afraid that nobody is doing anything.
    Particularly when it comes down to the minute-by-minute kind of tracking. I’ve done it myself when put in the undesired situation of managing someone else. (I am okay at figuring out what people should do, and even motivating them, but terrible at project management.)
    My first job was at an online ad agency where all time had to be billed to project numbers. Sometimes my timesheet was accurate. Sometimes, not so much. There are programs that can help you assign work to particular programs (you click on timers) but I’ve never used one.
    For workers who have a variety of things to do and no specific legal need to bill it back, it’s a complete waste of time. If your boss wants to know what you do with your time, he should ask you.
    These things also never seem to take into account that almost any worker doing a non-physical task needs time to just sit and think. If I sat and hammered keys writing code all day, I’d “produce” a lot, but most of it would be redundant or wasted.
    The one useful thing you learn from those is that you are interrupted 10,000 times a day. You never get to spend an hour or two on something because someone thinks you need to fix some little problem for them right now, instead of queuing it for later. If you can get the bosses to understand that, you might come away with some improvements.

  • Michael “Vendor X” Heaney

    I dunno, Duane, in my experience all people learn from such tracking is that now even more of their time is spent in what appears to be a pointless task. Asking employees to start tracking their behavior has, in my experience, always registered in their minds as a: a threat to their long term employment, b: an indication that their management knows very little about what they do, c: a waste of often valuable, even essential time and d: a source of stress. The very post we’re commenting on is a perfect example of this.
    If an employee is wasting time, either through avoiding responsibility or merely inefficient application of their efforts, it’s always better to just straight up tell them than to try and find some subtle symbolism to ‘lead them’ to the answer.

  • jengould

    Lawyers do too hate keeping track of their time, and they’re horrible at it. I guess I’m the only former legal secretary here. I worked for one guy who worked long days, then toward the end of the month would try to fill in all his timesheets so I could bill his clients. Keep in mind that the only way he made any money was if he could bill his time. Every month, the total on each day’s sheet was under 6 hours (meaning he could only account for 6 hours of work a day). We both knew that he spent way more than that on important work for the clients, but he couldn’t remember what it was. If that’s how it works when literally every penny you make depends on accurate timekeeping, I can’t imagine how bad timesheets must be when you’re not even sure what the point is.

  • bellatrys

    Yeah, the efficiency guys REALLY don’t like it when you put in little slots of “30 seconds – wrote down what I was doing” or say that the thing that really makes you least productive is having to stop and write down what you’re doing every time you change tasks. I did it at one place where they had a kind of timeclock on a computer with preset codes that worked sort of okay because it was at a central station, and you tended not to be multitasking there, only working at one machine station at a time.
    I also was forced to try it at an office like yours, by a guy who was a total incompetent and one of the least efficient/most arrogant people i’ve had the misfortune to work with, and it did nothing but make a shoestring operation tie itself into knots. It was a year getting rid of all his “improvements” and fixing the problems caused by them after he left.

  • emjaybee

    A good manager should know what you do, and if they don’t, they need to move THEIR asses to find out. Self-gathered data is always going to be padded; employees need their jobs, they are not going to reveal how much time they spend surfing Amazon or playing solitaire in a given day.
    What’s most maddening about this sort of thing (which I lump in with “crackdowns” on overuse of office supplies, email, or phone calls) is that the inefficiencies of regular employees are, in general, costing a company far less than overcompensated CEOs and bad business decisions. Every time I have gotten chastized for using too many Post It notes, I wonder how many private jet trips the CEO took that month.

  • Nancy Lebovitz

    You last suggestion reminds me of my notion that CEOs should be drug tested. If it’s important to make sure that ordinary employees are at least vaguely conscious at work, isn’t it at least as important for the people at the top?

  • JRoth

    I gotta say, until recently I was part of management at a small (8 people) architecture firm, and one thing that another architect/manager did was to add detail to the timesheets. It was a good thing.
    Now, unlike what seems to be the trend above, it was drop-down menus with labor codes, so no need to identify super-specific tasks. And there was always General Office and Project Management to throw an hour or two a day into. But it was genuinely useful to know who was 80% billable, who was 60% billable, and whether we had, in fact, estimated how long Schematic Design would take.
    There was some grumbling (by some) and fudging (by all), but it was really a useful tool.

  • btwrt

    I had a job where we had to do this – but what we input into the program we were supposed to use went directly into clients’ bills, so we were supposed to round things up (i.e. anything less than 15 minutes IS 15 minutes). Which is kind of hard to do, when you’re supposed to track realtime yet round it up … umm how many minutes are in an hour again?? I’ve got 83!
    Also you can imagine how non-informative and sometimes upsetting the clients’ bills were when they got them. Nobody reviewed this stuff before it went out.

  • Sarah Dylan Breuer

    Has anyone ever had the chutzpah to respond to such a request appropriately — which is to say, in kind? “Certainly, sir. I’d be glad to keep track of my workflow for you. And, you know, it would also be beneficial to me to better understand how you spend your time, so for the next week …”
    I did. When my boss asked me to file reports with her showing exactly what I was doing minute by minute, I told her that since she clearly found this kind of accounting helpful, it would be wonderfully instructive for me to see some examples of how she did it so I could emulate her level of detail. And she didn’t fire me!
    I did end up with lots of entries in my reports with titles like “reconciled calendar entries” and “wrote weekly memo.”
    Dylan

  • ajb

    I’ve always wanted to respond to one of my boss’ periodic “time-keeping policies” by asking “what’s the billing code for ‘suffering your bullshit?'”

  • cminus

    I worked for a firm that initiated a three month program to track our time in six minute intervals, with a great deal of detail. Too much detail, really, to be practical. We hated it, of course, but not only did it not lead to massive layoffs, it actually led to (minimal) new hiring. And at least our timesheet program had, honest to God, an entry for “use of timesheet program.”
    Oh, and as a former biller and bookkeeper at a law firm, allow me to echo Jen Gould’s comment about how little most lawyers invest in tracking their time, and how bad they are at it as a result.

  • Robert Carnegie

    I like the Dilbert cartoon where he explains to the boss’s secretary that he (Dilbert) has written in on his timesheet that he’s complaining to her about the timesheet system just now, and it comes in fifteen minute blocks.
    I think the timesheet code for timesheeting that isn’t ironic would be some sort of miscellaneous catch-all that /includes/ timesheeting. Or just do it on the computer with ease – someone mentioned lawyers, they do that.
    Unfortunately for computer users who want to timesheet efficiently, modern computers multitask. E-mail arrives any time, for instance. So suddenly you’re reading your e-mail and dealing with matters arising.

  • Robert Carnegie

    I like the Dilbert cartoon where he explains to the boss’s secretary that he (Dilbert) has written in on his timesheet that he’s complaining to her about the timesheet system just now, and it comes in fifteen minute blocks.
    I think the timesheet code for timesheeting that isn’t ironic would be some sort of miscellaneous catch-all that /includes/ timesheeting. Or just do it on the computer with ease – someone mentioned lawyers, they do that.
    Unfortunately for computer users who want to timesheet efficiently, modern computers multitask. E-mail arrives any time, for instance. So suddenly you’re reading your e-mail and dealing with matters arising.

  • Robert Carnegie

    Oh, this /is/ working. Okay. Sorry. ;-)

  • Kim

    This is an interesting discussion for me because it is so foreign. I have never worked in the kinds of environments you all are describing — the closest I’ve experienced is when I was in school learning to be a kitchen designer and we were supposed to keep track of how long we spent on our drawings. I was really bad at it.
    On the other hand, I work as a hygienist in two different dental offices. I do not get breaks unless a patient fails to show up — and then I am supposed to look busy. That’s right, no coffee breaks at all. Even though that’s not strictly legal. I work halfway through lunch most days. I only use the bathroom at lunch. I work 99% of my day, and if I stop to chat with the receptionist or assistant, the doctor gives me dirty looks or tells me to stop.
    I don’t really mind the break-less work, but it makes me feel unappreciated.
    I don’t get paid vacation or sick leave either. (In thirty years of doing this, I’ve only missed work twice for illness/injury).
    We really need a Union.