An Engineering Consultant’s Experience with Time Tracking

Written by Muhammad Bulbulia

Hi, I’m Muhammad, a mechanical engineer, consultant, project manager and academic. Juggling multiple projects and responsibilities across work, academia, and family commitments are daunting. I’ve found that effective time management is essential to remain productive. I firmly believe that everyone is capable of incredible achievements, and that smart time management is key in achieving phenomenal results.

My Personal Experience with Time Tracking as a Novice Engineer

Time is undoubtedly a precious resource; for a consultant, time is also a valuable commodity. During my decade-long career as an engineering consultant, my working hours have been recorded using time tracking software and timesheet apps. Weekly timesheet submission has been a mainstay of my consulting career thus far.

For those of you who are not familiar with these concepts, allow me to explain. Time tracking software allows you to track your work time. The hours you’ve worked are recorded in the time tracking software. Time may be allocated to particular phases, tasks, and activities for each project. This data is used to generate timesheets, which are essential documents for payroll processing.

Two men with blueprints inspecting structure

My introduction to time tracking was interesting. My first full-time job happened to be at a global design, engineering, and advisory firm. I worked through several training modules as part of the onboarding process. One of the modules covered attendance and leave policies, and also discussed time tracking and timesheets. I learned the following:

  • Employees were required to track all time spent on work activities.
  • Timesheets reflecting the time spent on work activities were to be submitted on a weekly basis.
  • The deadline for timesheet submission was 5:00 PM Friday afternoon.
  • I was taught how to access the time tracking and timesheet software via the company intranet portal.
  • I was instructed to speak to my manager for additional timesheet information relevant to our business unit.

As expected, my manager gave me an overview of the time tracking systems, by demonstrating how easy it was to complete a few timesheet entries on his account. It certainly seemed easy as I watched him fly through a few timesheet entries; however, submitting my own timesheets proved to be more difficult.

What Could be a Problem if You Are New to Time Tracking?

These were some of the challenges I faced when submitting my first timesheets:

  • The time tracking software only allowed for tracking time to the nearest half hour, so I couldn’t track my time accurately.
  • I wasn’t sure what project codes to use for onboarding and training.
  • I couldn’t remember my organizational code (an identification code that differed between business units).
  • Error messages popped up when I tried to log time on certain projects, stating that I wasn’t authorized to work on those projects.
  • My manager wasn’t available to assist me.
  • I couldn’t find any relevant guidelines or documentation on the internet or company intranet.

This seems trivial now, but as a young employee new to the corporate world, it wasn’t an ideal introduction to time tracking and timesheet systems.

The First Time Tracking Strategy I Developed

Over the next few years, I gained significant experience with time tracking systems. I developed the following strategy which I used to complete my timesheets:

  • Make a note of work done and time spent on projects and tasks as each task is completed.
  • Collate, review, and save this information at the end of each day.
  • Transfer these details when completing my timesheet on a Friday.

I found this approach to be simpler than manually entering my time tracking data on a daily basis. Forgive me for being naïve, if only I’d known there was time tracking software (freely available might I add!) that automated the time tracking process.

I found ways to simplify completing my timesheets, such as:

  • Copying timesheet entries or notes from previous weeks or months. I had to be careful and ensure that I changed the task and activity details if required. 
  • Proactively identifying areas where there might be trouble submitting a timesheet (due to administrative issues or when working out of the office, for example).
  • Reminding project managers that project authorization or resources (i.e. money!) needed to be allocated to my work.

Are There Different Approaches to Completing Timesheets?

Well, yes. I’ve had colleagues with various approaches to completing their timesheets. A (very) select few individuals would record their time diligently on a daily basis. Many would scramble to complete their timesheets at the last minute.

I’ve found that the majority of employees feel time tracking processes, particularly the manual data entry timesheet-centred process, are burdensome, time-consuming, and unnecessary. I’ve often felt the same way, completing my timesheet during periods where I worked on a single project and task would feel like a breeze. However, periods involving work on multiple projects, with different types of work and deliverables, made time tracking and timesheet completion a daunting exercise.

What Could Cause Inaccuracies with Time Tracking Data?

I’ve found that accurate time tracking data is not readily available. In my experience, many inaccuracies find their way into manual time-tracking systems. These include:

  • A dependency on employee honesty and diligence in tracking their time.
  • Employee laziness.
  • Employees overstating time spent on work activities, so that they seem to be busy and putting in a lot of effort.
  • Mistakes and errors made by employees when entering data manually.
  • Intentional gaming of the system, for example, employees may assign time to projects or tasks with large budgets instead of projects running low on cash.
  • Employees booking time on administration, training, or marketing activities even though work was done on projects. Project managers or supervisors may instruct employees accordingly to mask projects in a poor financial state.

Some of the practices outlined above may be considered fraudulent and have legal implications.

Based on these examples, one can appreciate the difficulty in ascertaining the quality of time tracking data obtained from manual timesheet systems, and that it would be risky to use such data to derive meaningful insight or as a basis to inform business decisions.

Is Time Tracking Really Efficient?

Besides inaccuracies, there are also inefficiencies inherent in the time tracking and timesheet submission process. These include:

  • Time spent completing timesheets is seen as administrative and non-productive time, and (from a business perspective) would be better spent on productive work which is billed to the client and generates revenue.
  • Additional time is spent on claims for disbursement, travel, and applying for leave.
  • Double time tracking requirements can occur when a client or project has their own separate time tracking tool or timesheet, thus requiring time for the same work to be captured on two different systems.
  • As a manager or supervisor, time is spent setting up projects and allocating resources on the time tracking platform, reviewing and approving subordinates’, sub-consultants’, and subcontractors’ timesheets, in addition to completing one’s own timesheet.

So… Why Do We Need to Track Time?

It took some time (pun intended) before I grasped the role that time tracking played within an engineering consultancy. Here is what I learned:

  • As a consulting firm doing knowledge-based work, clients paid for our skills and services, and essentially paid for our time.
  • Time tracking data allowed us to bill clients for the actual time spent working on their projects.
  • A record of work done and time taken to complete the work could be developed from time tracking.
  • Time tracking data aids in pricing future work.
  • Inefficiencies in workflows and processes may be found by analyzing time tracking data.
  • Time tracking data aids in management and decision-making regarding resource allocation, determination of employee productivity, project budgeting and financial forecasting.

As you can see, time tracking data is damn useful, however, accurate time tracking data is a prerequisite to achieving great results.

How Can Organizations Improve Their Time Tracking Systems and Processes?

I outlined here several strategies that may be used to improve an organization’s time management and time tracking processes:

  • Develop simple and standardized processes for time tracking systems, and ensure that these are consistently implemented across the organization. 
  • Provide adequate training with regard to time tracking processes. Processes and guidelines must be well-documented and easily accessible.
  • Ensure that the time tracking system used by the organization makes it easy for employees to track time. Options such as desktop time tracking, web-based time tracking, mobile time tracking, GPS tracking, and automated solutions are features to consider.
  • Establish open communication between the organization and its employees. Request feedback from employees on how the time tracking system, workflow and user interface can be improved, and be responsive to employee suggestions.
  • Review and update the time tracking process, to ensure that the system is efficient and working as intended.
  • Incentivize accurate time tracking, for example, set up a reward system for employees who are consistent and accurate in tracking their time.
  • Explain how time tracking data is used by the organization, and outline the importance of accurate time tracking data with regard to the financial success of the organization.
  • Explain the consequences of inaccurate time tracking and highlight that there may be legal consequences for employees or the organization because of inaccurate time tracking data.

Final Thoughts

I’ve found time tracking to be an invaluable tool as an engineering consultant. I’ve used time tracking software to plan my day and allocate my time effectively. Time tracking data may assist with numerous tasks, including billing clients; assessing employee utilization, productivity and efficiency; assisting with resource allocation and forecasting resource demands; pricing, bidding and budgeting for work.

Meaningful results and insight are dependent on the availability of accurate time tracking data; in my work environment, this was largely dependent on accurate timesheet information being logged and captured by employees. This represents a challenge; there is often a negative perception from employees regarding time tracking and completing timesheets. It is in an organization’s best interest to change this perception.

The implementation of strategies to improve an organization’s time tracking systems and positively redefine employee perceptions will allow organizations to reap the many benefits of an effective time tracking system and productive employees.

Take a look at the following articles… if you have the time 😉

What is a Timesheet App?

Time Tracking Best Practices for US Engineers

Time Management Strategies for Consultants