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A comprehensive guide to agency timesheet

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Updated on:
February 24, 2024
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It’s always said that time is money, but to an agency, keeping track of time itself can be just as valuable. Timesheets and other methods of timekeeping are an indispensable part of the creative industry, enabling better efficiency and smoother management of both projects and clients. Indeed, the entire time-tracking market is set to grow at a CAGR of 20.4% between 2021 and 2028.

Creatives may detest them, but there’s no doubt timekeeping technology fulfills a valuable role.

The humble timesheet’s versatility is demonstrated by the sheer number of templates and software out there today. Every agency has its own needs and requirements for tracking their time. Which is right for you, though? This article will provide an in-depth look at timesheets, their pros and cons, and their many formats.

What makes a timesheet?

Timekeeping in the workplace has been around for centuries. Employers have always sought ways to track progress and employee efficiency. The Australian jeweler, William Bundy invented the first mechanical clock in 1888, which allowed workers to “clock” their working hours by stamping cards as they started and ended shifts. This allowed for work to be accurately measured in hours and paid for with an hourly wage.

Timesheets are one of the ways that this timekeeping system evolved. But what makes a timesheet? Simply put, they are a way of tracking hours an employee has spent working on a certain job over a certain period. It also tracks the amount of work done on projects for particular clients.

These hours are logged, usually by the employees themselves, in set time intervals. This ranges from daily timekeeping to those submitted every month. In truth, anybody in the agency can log employee hours, and indeed many choose to automate the entire process for better accuracy.

With the timesheets logged, the hours are tracked and used both internally and externally. Accurate timekeeping can help agencies maximize efficiency on projects, and provide detailed reports, and accurate billing to clients. Timesheets have become an industry staple for measuring time as a commodity.

While specifics may vary, agency timesheet processes generally follow the same broad procedures:

  1. A client brief is received and a schedule is created around the expected completion timeframe.
  2. Employees are assigned according to the need and the number of hours allocated.
  3. Employees or supervisors track their hours over a certain period.
  4. Logged hours are tracked and approved. This can be done by one person, such as a project manager who acts as both a gatekeeper and a bridge between the client and the agency.
  5. Hours worked are shared with clients, often included as part of project reports.

Types of timesheets

There are countless timesheets available on the internet, all with their own formats and features. The best way to classify them is by the type of time they measure. Each has its own niches, benefits, and drawbacks. Here are some of the most popular kinds:

  • Daily Timesheets – These sheets are completed every day and log hours worked on jobs in a highly accurate fashion. This format is best suited to jobs where the number of hours worked is important, e.g. for freelancers. That said, creatives may dislike having to repetitively log hours on a daily basis.
  • Weekly Timesheets – For longer jobs, this is a more efficient way to track time. What’s more, it can also be useful for logging employee benefits over a period, like sick or annual leave. They can also be a less intrusive method of timekeeping for employees.
  • Bi-weekly Timesheets – Some agencies operate on a bi-weekly project and payment basis, which makes this method very efficient.
  • Monthly Timesheets – For large projects and pitches, this method can track time over a larger period. It’s also well-designed for tracking employee leave. On the other hand, its longer timeframe has the potential for greater human error, as the specific day-to-day hours can often be forgotten by employees. As such, a monthly timesheet should still be filled in regularly.
  • Project Timesheets – Some jobs may necessitate keeping specific track of their hours. While timesheets can track multiple jobs simultaneously, project managers may be especially involved in logging hours for a team working on a project, be it for client transparency or greater efficiency.

Why timesheets?

Tracking time is important to any agency for a whole host of reasons. If a client is paying for time, they need to know it’s being put to good use. The U.S. economy is estimated to lose $50 million annually due to untracked time. Similarly, an agency wants to know that it’s making the best possible use of those hours. Here are some of the major benefits of agency timesheets:

Efficient management

Timesheets are key in organizing a workforce. Accurate timekeeping lets an agency track the hours of all employees, which helps in gauging capacity. This prevents certain team members from being overutilized (and overworked) while others have relatively little to do. This process tracks who’s busy, whether their workload is too much or too little, and how best assignments can be allocated and shared.

Under-utilized staff members can be more easily identified with timesheets and can be reassigned to another project. Persistently idle staff can also be recommended for extra training and upskilling to become more versatile members of the team.

This efficiency also extends to the project itself. What parts are taking the most time? What needs more attention? Timesheets can identify these areas and streamline the process, leading to better efficiency and a boosted productivity output.

Better handling of resources

Budget allocations for projects are carefully calculated affairs for both clients and agencies, and accurate timekeeping is essential in keeping both parties happy. Work should be carefully allocated the fitting amount of personnel and hours to best deliver in the desired time frame.

If hours aren’t correctly monitored or allocated beforehand, then creatives may spend too much time crafting the perfect idea, leading to production bottlenecks. Similarly, clients may quickly overshoot their budgets with too many reverts.

Of course, not all resource allocation will be perfect. This process must be constantly reviewed, and past failures and successes used for new projects. For agencies, this can maximize profits through better efficiency. In the long term, the ratio of hours worked to profit made can even help an agency determine whether or not to maintain a particular client relationship.

Ensure compliance

Timesheets are also an important way for an agency to ensure workplace compliance with certain government entities. For example, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 requires employers and all those who fall under its protection to be compliant in several areas. These include hours worked, overtime, and all forms of leave.

Failure to comply with these bodies can result in severe penalties and stiff fines. A good way to avoid this is to provide concrete documentation in the form of approved timesheets and detailed reports. Having a record of all employee hours is an effective way to maintain agency compliance.

Avoid overservicing

It is possible to have too much of a good thing. Without proper timekeeping and constraints, projects can quickly run over time and budget. Creatives may spend countless hours finely crafting and tuning ideas, that offer more than the brief is asking for. This overservicing can be avoided by carefully allocating project hours in an estimate before work begins.

Improving project estimates

Estimating the required hours for a job requires a thorough understanding of all the ones that have gone before it. Timesheets can help project managers better choose an ideal team and framework based on past experiences. The more detailed the records, the better. A solid estimate will also affect an agency’s quotation to a client.

Better billing

Clients like to know where their money is going. Timesheets provide a quantifiable means of gauging agency performance. It’s important that the process is as transparent as possible to avoid any confusion and doubts.

Automated time-tracking software, like that offered by Bonsai, can take timekeeping one step further, providing accurate updates that are constantly shared with clients. This extends to billing and reports too. Timesheets are prone to human error and inaccuracy, but software can streamline the logging process, and integrate it seamlessly with invoices and reports. It’s accurate, and never late.

Issues with timesheets

No system is perfect, and timesheets are no exception. Their role as an industry standard and the many forms they take leave timesheets open to a lot of criticism. Only 60% of employees feel that their net pay is accurate to their working hours.

Thus, timesheet complaints can be divided into two major categories: their shortcomings in timekeeping, and their necessity in the agency landscape.

A good way to track time?

Timesheets are designed to track hours worked on one or more projects by an employee. While this can be effective for more manual or input-based work, difficulties arise in the creative field. An agency’s timesheets may track hours spent writing and designing, but do they accurately reflect the time spent brainstorming, ideation, and devising strategies?

While brainstorming may not qualify as billable time, it’s still vital to the creative process and should be factored into any project. A smart agency should always make it a point to allocate this time for any job and effectively log it as such. While some clients may demand to see hours manifested in concrete work, it’s important for a project manager to that logged hours aren’t necessarily the whole picture.

Some employees also adjust their timesheets to accommodate their skill level. To remain within budget, certain supervisors and directors are forced to limit or downplay their involvement in a project. This can have drastic effects on a project’s final quality.

Employee resistance

Just because timesheets are a necessity doesn’t make them any less annoying to deal with to employees. Timekeeping isn’t a popular activity in agencies at the ground level. Many actually see it as a time-consuming process, and an added stress that distracts from tight deadlines and more important work.

There are also employee issues with the frequency of timesheets. The constant time logging of daily timesheets can be seen as oppressive surveillance and a sign of an agency’s lack of trust in its staff. On the opposite end, monthly timesheets carry a high risk of human error, as employees struggle to remember how many hours they logged on to that one specific project from three weeks ago.

Finally, the method of timekeeping itself may prove an obstacle. Some employee input technology can have a steep learning curve, leading to frustration. More analog methods like paper timesheets can be cumbersome and exhausting to work with.

Finding the right solutions

Timesheets, by their nature, can’t be an ideal fit for every industry and agency. The best way to implement a solution is by analyzing the shortcomings in your own agency. Here are a few to get you started:

Make timesheets personal

Timesheets are seen by many employees as an imposed stress from the higher-ups to achieve their own ends. What many don’t realize is the vital role of timesheets benefits them too. To bring employees on board, agencies need to make these benefits clear. A project manager can explain that:

  • Correctly logging hours means that an employee is never overburdened with work.
  • If an employee is currently struggling, then work can be shared with other team members.
  • A happy client means more work and a better salary as a result.
  • If an employee is underutilized, they can receive training to upskill in other areas, potentially leading to more fulfillment in the workplace.

A positive reinforcement system can work far more effectively than punishing employees for not correctly logging their hours. A positive buy-in from senior staff and agency higher-ups can make this acceptance a lot easier.

Transparent hour allotment

Employees can grow frustrated not knowing the time limits of a job, and can either wind up over or underdelivering without proper transparency. As many as 43% of projects go over budget, with employee hours being one of the biggest problems. Placing allotted hours in a brief, for example, lets teams know their limits upfront and paradoxically gives them more freedom to work.

An agency can also make its teams a direct part of the allotment process by developing a Statement of Work. Employees can have their say in dictating resources for the different phases of a project, giving on-the-ground insights that managers may miss.

Alternatives to timesheets

Some projects may require an extensive reworking or complete negation of an agency’s standard timekeeping methods to more accurately reflect the work put into them. Some agencies prefer to bill clients for reaching particular milestones in a project, which allows more creative freedom. If time is an issue, then deadlines can be set for reaching these milestones on or before an agreed-upon date.

Senior team members are often limited in their involvement in certain projects due to their higher value. A timekeeping system can be adjusted to bill clients for employee value in relation to specific jobs, rather than by rank. The more value a team member has brought, the higher the fee.

Another way to bill clients is by charging according to the value an entire project brings to them. Results-driven work can inspire teams to place more emphasis on crafting an effective process rather than ticking off tasks on the way to completing it. A successful project can benefit everyone involved.

Time tracking tools

Alongside the evolution of workplace timekeeping has come countless ways of getting the job done. From analog to digital, there’s an ideal workflow for everyone. As many as 38% of U.S. employees still use manual methods of logging time, like punch cards. Spreadsheets have long been a popular way of tracking project hours, but lack the automation and connectivity of newer software solutions.

Web-based platforms, on the other hand, use cloud-based software to track and store data, providing security and accessibility to all staff members. There are many timekeeping software options out there today, all with their own unique features.

Your agency may have its own requirements when searching for the right timekeeping software. The best offerings, however, are those that integrate their timekeeping with other project processes and act as an all-in-one solution to an agency’s needs. Here are some major industry leaders:

Bonsai

Bonsai is an all-in-one project management platform that makes it easy to track time spent on projects. Besides offering simple timesheet templates, the platform helps agencies organize their projects, and effectively track all hours spent on a task. You can track time, analyze hours spent, seamlessly compile these into reports, and accurately bill clients.

Bonsai doesn’t just stop at timekeeping, though. There are a variety of other features to boost agencies’ productivity and streamline project management. These range from tracking client leads, to organizing entire projects in phases. It’s a convenient way to manage clients, jobs, and budgets while providing transparency and ensuring accuracy.

Clockify

Clockify provides another well-rounded solution for time tracking. While its capabilities don’t extend past the timekeeping area of project management, it’s able to fulfill its role quite comprehensively. The software enables agencies not only to track hours but also employee leave. This information can also be synchronized with calendars and compiled into client invoices.

It’s a versatile tool with and user-friendly interface. That said, many of the advanced software features are hidden behind paywalls.

Harvest

Harvest is a sophisticated SaaS tool designed to track projects and their hours and use this data for analytics and accurate billing. Invoices can be sent directly from the app, streamlining the workflow process. A big feature of Harvest is its integration ability. The software can link seamlessly to other programs like Trello and Asana, allowing agencies the flexibility to manage their projects and teams.

On the downside, the app’s reliance on manual timers means that forgetting to set, switch, or deactivate a timer can make for inaccurate timekeeping and potentially costly mistakes. The constant alarms are also seen as quite distracting.

QuickBooks time

This software solution is another cloud-based app. What sets it apart is its focus on mobile capabilities. Employees can log their hours on the go, which are recorded on centralized timesheets. This mobile functionality also allows agencies to monitor the geolocation of employees as they work, providing a more accurate picture of shifts.

Unfortunately, this tracking doesn’t extend to online activity. The app also lacks a trial period and offers limited customer support.

Timekeeping is money

For better or worse, timesheets are an integral part of the agency landscape. A smart agency knows the limitations of timekeeping solutions for their business and can successfully adapt different solutions to fit their workflow.

You should now have all the information you need about tracking project hours to make the best decision for maximizing your productivity without impacting quality.

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