Reporting is the vital connector between the time-tracking data you collect and the stakeholders you need to inform and persuade. This group of stakeholders goes beyond the clients you serve, to the executives you work for and the employees who work for you! Knowing how your audiences differ is the key to producing a report that does its job properly. Luckily, there are a limited number of audience types or ‘personas’ you need to prepare for. Read on to find out who they are and what they want.
We don’t track time because it’s fun. It is a means to an end.
That said, if you do it right, the potential benefits of time-tracking are enormous. Knowing how you spend your time unlocks the potential to improve how you spend it, by identifying where the time is going. And the more detailed the time tracking data, the more insights you can glean.
Just because insightful data exists, that does not mean that insights are being seen and used. For this to happen, there is a vital link in the chain - reporting.
Why reporting matters?
In their book, A Matter of Time, a guide to time-tracking and hourly billing for professional advisors, authors Mark Berg and Matthew Jackson set out three lenses for analyzing time tracking data:
Lens 1: In the aggregate, how the firm is spending its time
Lens 2: Employee level, how employees spent their time versus the firm average
Lens 3: Client level, what each client is receiving, and how much and from whom.
In order to fully utilize the value of time tracking data, it is necessary to apply all three lenses, and not just Lens 3 (which is used primarily for billing clients).
A practical illustration
One of the authors of the book mentioned above recounts the story of a lawyer he knew who ran a small firm, consisting of himself, a junior partner, and three associates. Naturally, everyone tracked their time for the purposes of billing (Lens 3).
When the owner truly analyzed the data at an employee level (Lens 2), he found that out of a firm of five lawyers, he himself was performing 60% of the total billable hours. The junior partner was responsible for 30%, and the three associates combined accounted for only 10%.
The data, therefore, contained critical insights about the efficiency of the firm and its management practices. Until the data were analyzed and interpreted, however, the manager was more or less unaware of the problem, and his team was probably in the dark as well. That’s a scary thought!
The ‘final mile’
As well as being scary, the story also shows why reporting is such a key issue for time-based professionals. It could be thought of as the ‘final mile’ that allows us to truly reap the benefits of our painstaking efforts in recording the time we spend serving clients and building our businesses.
It need not create a constant state of ‘analysis paralysis’ either. In the example above, just looking at Lens 1 data (the overall billability of the firm) could have tipped off the owner that his own split of time was out of kilter with the overall split the firm as a whole was generating.
As the above example shows, reporting is not just a case of sending a bill to our clients with the number of hours worked, the hourly rate, and the total amount owed. In fact, it is not ‘one thing’ at all, but more of a toolkit, with multiple tools and multiple applications.
What is a time report?
Everything is based on data: that is, a record - whether a formal timesheet, a calendar, or a piece of paper - showing who did what and for how long. However, data is only the starting point for a time report.
Creating an effective time report depends on the ability to carefully select data so that the important insights can reveal themselves. To use the data effectively, we need to think about it in slightly more detailed terms.
For example, while the ‘how long’ (=hours spent) is always reported in the same way (hours and minutes), the ‘who’ and the ‘what’ can take on various forms:
The Who → People: This is normally the employee, but could also be a group of employees, such as a team, division, or the entire company.
The What → Action: At the highest level this could be a binary (billable / non-billable), a category (e.g. business development), and project or initiative (e.g. build client website), or even a task (e.g. check the integrity of client data).
Depending on the level of granularity (high/low) required, and which of the two main dimensions (People or Actions) you are interested in, you can create different insights for different audiences.
The audience is key
Given that time reporting is a versatile toolkit, you need to be clear on who is intended to read the report and what interests them before you can decide what tools to use.
That might sound like an onerous task. In our experience, despite the wide variety of industries that use time-tracking to create reports, there are a limited number of “personas” that you need to be aware of from an audience perspective:
Client: The person using and paying for a billed-for service
Upper management: “C-levels” or equivalents whose role is oversight and strategic direction-setting
Project manager: The day-to-day manager, directly involved in the activities being tracked
Team: A unit joined together by a project, initiative, or otherwise a common goal whose hours are being tracked
Individual team members: An employee looking to prove and improve their performance.
Having looked at this overview, let’s dig into each persona to understand in more detail what they are looking for in a time report.
Key questions: What have you done for me? Have I got good value?
It goes without saying that clients want transparency. For most organizations, this is interpreted as meaning that it is important to be transparent about fees. A broader definition of transparency, however, can turn an invoice into a value communication opportunity.
Emphasize value as well as price
‘Price is only an issue in the absence of value’. This saying is not just referring to the importance of providing value but ensuring that this value is communicated at the same moment the price is revealed. The price is only half the story.
Tip: Use the People and Action dimensions to give texture to the fee making it easier to comprehend. E.g. break down a large bill by phase (if it was a long project) or by component (if there were various aspects to the task).
Transparency ≠ ‘highly detailed’
Detail should be used sparingly. Large tracts of boring info about the company, or terms and conditions, is not advisable and could be misinterpreted as a deliberate visual overload (in order to hide or mislead).
Tip: If you decide to include a more thorough activity breakdown, it is better to put this later in the report. Few clients will review the detail line by line, but it will give them peace of mind to know that it is there.
Key questions: How are we doing as a firm? Are we on track to meet our financial & strategic goals?
The typical upper manager is dealing with multiple priorities and viewing many other reports besides the one you are presenting. Given the audience’s limited mental bandwidth, preparing a good report is as much what you leave out as it is about what you include.
Relate everything to the big picture
C-levels (or equivalents) live in a world of strategic goals and operational objectives. Any data presented to them should show progress towards one of these aims, or (more rarely) suggest a new one (e.g. billability unusually high → we should recruit more staff/invest in technology).
Tip: A good question to ask is ‘What business objective does this data relate to?’ (e.g. its effect on revenue and/or profit). The goal may not be directly related to financials, but could also relate to non-billable time, such as time devoted to marketing or training.
Stay clear of the weeds
Not only do upper managers lack time and bandwidth, but they also lack familiarity with the details of the work and the individuals involved. The People and Action dimensions are still relevant, but at the level of the forest, not the trees.
Tip: It is not always necessary to reinvent the wheel. For regular fixtures, such as a quarterly performance check-up, the information in an upper management report should be well-established, needing only one or two calibrations.
Key questions: Are we on track to finish on time and within budget? Who on the team is in trouble or needs help?
A project manager must be in the details of the day-to-day, their report will therefore be the most substantial in terms of length and detail. A granular report will enable them to monitor the state of play, but also take a step back so as to remain capable of leadership.
Managing capacity & deadlines
Any project manager is concerned with ensuring that tasks are accomplished within their deadlines. The time report should reveal whether a certain task or stage of the project is taking too long, or receiving insufficient attention.
Tip: Over time, the manager should aim to use the data to acquire a sense of what is normal for tasks of different lengths, both in terms of hours-to-complete and calendar days from start to finish. This will make for better capacity planning and less fire-fighting.
From a People perspective, the manager should be looking for problems before they become serious, such as lower/higher than expected activity from a given team member. Rather than constantly micromanage, they will then be in a position to intervene only when necessary.
Tip: As with task analysis, project managers should constantly be looking to optimize the numbers they see (e.g. the right mix of seniors to juniors for a given task). Historic analysis should make it possible to establish these norms in a quantitative way.
Key questions: Are we working together effectively? Will we complete the project on time?
The Team is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the upper management. They think at the level of tasks and days, rather than quarterly trends. A team report could therefore be fairly close to the timesheets the team is used to filling out, both in terms of format and level of detail.
Inspiring group spirit
The ability to show the team results as a whole, while showing the individual contributions of various members, is a way to inspire the group (demonstrating what they can achieve together) as well as motivate team members to pull their weight.
Tip: In addition to project-specific reports, regularly checking in with a consolidated view of time and activity (as a firm) will help reassure the team that the firm is on track as well as convey that everyone is responsible for both past and future success.
Establishing and communicating norms
By establishing what is the ‘norm’ (e.g. number of hours spent on admin), a team report can also have an educational element, particularly for new hires looking to understand working practices and expectations, as well as keeping the rest of the team in line with expectations.
Tip: While it needs to be used carefully, league tables or prizes can be helpful to introduce a note of gamification, incentivizing good behavior and healthy competition, while also taking the edge off the ‘administrative’ feel of time-tracking.
Individual team members
Key questions: Have I demonstrated my proficiency and value to the firm? Am I entitled to higher compensation and/or recognition?
Promotions, bonuses, and pay raises are very often tied to billability goals or other metrics that measure direct revenue generation. A time report should allow the story behind the headline billability number to come through, adding context.
Tip: A good time report should anticipate common disputes, for example making it easier to understand the reason behind lower than expected billability (e.g. vacation, medical leave).
Use as a basis for negotiation
The data included in a time report provides material for both parties - employer and employee - to use in a negotiation. Having a clear view of non-billable activities can be important in determining if an employee has in fact performed well, despite missing their original targets.
Tip: Non-billable time is not just ‘overhead’, but can be a source of future revenue for the firm (e.g. business development, recruiting). It’s therefore important to have categories for non-billable time for use in employee-level discussions.
As we’ve seen, the ‘art’ of time-reporting is a question of knowing what you want to communicate, and eliminating as far as possible all information that might obscure the message you want to convey.
The good news is that once you have established a template for a given persona, it can be re-used with minimal modifications time after time. We’ve done a fair amount of thinking on this topic, and have worked with hundreds of clients to solve the all-important issue of communicating progress and results.
Find out more about our existing templates for time-reporting here.
And don’t forget to report back on your progress :).