Billable Hours, Creativity, and Time Reckoning

Scholars of work call the systems used to mark time as “time reckoning systems.” In feudal times, time reckoning was usually done through festivals, feasts, and religious rites. Durkheim says this is the only way we can really understand time — as the divisions between group events.

But a new time reckoning system emerged during the Industrial Revolution: the clock. The first clocks were erected in the 14th Century and became more and more common when factories opened and something was needed to call workers to work. The clock became that symbol. Time “changed” in the sense that time was marked by hours and minutes, and not by divisions between festivals.

Which brings me to billable hours…

In my research so far, I’m finding that interactive agency employees all mark time, to some degree, in billable hours. Some systems are more rigid than others, some are more internalized than others, but they all make tracking billable hours a time reckoning system.

But a funny thing happens when creative people work: they seem to “lose” time. This shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, we know that “flow” states are characterized by timelessness. People can actually *enjoy* work more than, say, watching TVbecause of these flow states.

But where does that leave billable hours? Do people actually remember that they worked 45 minutes on a client project? Or was it actually 5 hours? Those pesky time reckoning systems make it difficult to ignore the gap in your memory; you *must* record something. But your conscious experience when you’re being creative defies just such a time reckoning system.

I’m beginning to suspect that this conflict lies at the heart of the nature of work and time in the interactive agency. Agency managers would do well to recognize that their time reckoning systems conflict directly with the working conditions that encourage creativity.

How do you solve this? Don’t bill by the hour. Bill by the service provided.


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