I invite any and all feedback to this post, which I consider my initial findings. In this post, I outline what I believe to be the dynamics behind agency time-tracking systems. I intend this post to be controversial for a reason: I want to know if I’m wrong. Tell me if I am!
An analytical device in sociology is finding the difference between the ostensible reason for something and the effective reason. A famous example is UC Berkeley prof Michael Burawoy’s Manufacturing Consent (not to be confused with Chomsky’s book). Burawoy worked as a machinist in an unnamed factory. He found that workers in the factory engaged in complex game-playing to “make out” or to reach a bonus. They would take “gravy jobs” to “bank” finished machines for their bonuses, they would avoid “crap jobs” to ensure they didn’t lose their bonuses, and they had intricate systems of alliances.
The OSTENSIBLE reason for “making out” was to get the bonus, but Burawoy argued that the EFFECTIVE reason for “making out” was to engage workers in high-productivity work that earned the company more money, while at the same time made it appear that they were at odds WITH EACH OTHER and not the company in their efforts.
My initial findings suggest that there is a similar dynamic in the time-tracking systems in agencies. The ostensible reason for these systems is for billing clients. Tracking time makes it possible to issue invoices to bill clients for hours put into their projects. But this conflicts with what I believe to be the effective reason.
But I’m finding that this systems is imperfect at best. Agency workers have told me that the system is often arbitrary, with the true number of billable hours more a function of what the client is willing to pay for, and not the actual number of hours worked. They also tell me there are many instances of inaccurate records, such as when they are asked to estimate their time ahead of actually doing work, or when they reconstruct how long it took them to finish a task through indicators like their Outlook calendar or their email inbox.
They also tell me there is an ambiguity about what is “billable” and what isn’t. Some workers assert that industry research is fully billable. Others argue that they must do that work “on their own time” and never bill the client for it.
Regardless of how accurate these individual workers’ time sheets, there is a significant amount of cynicism about the accuracy of the system IN GENERAL. Most of these workers know that what the client sees in an invoice is not necessarily an accurate representation of hours worked.
So if the OSTENSIBLE reason is false, what is the EFFECTIVE reason for time tracking? Besides the fact that there is no other system ready to replace it, time tracking has a useful side-effect: job insecurity. I base this on several themes emerging from my interviews.
- Workers in this study almost universally told me that you DO NOT bill yourself as “Available” or “Waiting for work,” even if that’s exactly what you are.
- Workers also express concern about not being “billable enough,” and some even know exactly how much revenue they must personally bring in to be deemed worthy.
- Workers struggle to “keep” the number of billable hours they have on their time sheets. If they worked 60 hours in a single week and their project manager says he cannot charge the client for all of it, they will concede to 40 hours of work as the official record as long as they’re all billable. This penalizes them when it comes time to ask for time off — their time sheets don’t reflect the true number of hours they worked.
- Workers are evaluated on their “utilization rates” or “billable rates,” which demonstrates how much time they spent on client-paid work. These rates, however, are largely out of the control of the individual worker, who have no control over what projects they work on. So workers will often feel anxiety about “not being billable” even if they have no control over the new projects coming.
The practice of billable hours for many agency workers appears to create an internalized commitment to the full commodification of labor. In other words, time sheets tend to create an implicit acceptance that agency labor should be bought and sold as a commodity. This conflicts with what most agencies say they sell — they say they sell “solutions” or “innovations.” But in this way, they are very similar to temp agencies, which sell nothing but the labor of their temp workers.
If your daily practice of categorizing your time into “billable” (good for the company) and “non-billable” (cost for the company) then it is arguable too that you internalize these goals. You believe it necessary to be sufficiently “billable” for you and the company to succeed. But what of the many profitable industries hire workers that are not “billable” at all? How do they survive? If profitability were about billable hours, then many high value-add industries such as pharmaceuticals, investment banking, and oil & gas would simply go under.
Now I am noticing though that this disciplining about being sufficiently billable does not necessarily extend to more senior people. The more senior people I have spoken to don’t seem to be as concerned in “recovering” the cost of their labor. They seem to be satisfied by defining their non-billable time as “business development” which is “good for the company.” But not all workers have the ability to directly record their own entrepreneurial activities as “business development,” and thereby will be penalized for not meeting their target utilizations.
As I mentioned above, I WANT YOUR COMMENTS. How valid is my theory about the ostensible and effective purposes of the time tracking systems? Please tell me!