Imagine: An Agency Without Time Sheets

Life in an interactive agency has a “culture all its own” according to one of my respondents. Imagine that culture without time sheets. What would be different?

More on that in a second. But first, about my my last post . Some people disagreed with it (both on this blog and elsewhere) by arguing that everybody knows time tracking systems are imperfect and GOOD managers don’t rely on time tracking to make money. In this line of argument, agency workers know that it’s simply overzealous and inexperienced project managers that make a big deal out of tracking time.

Let’s say the entire billable hour model in agencies is just a result of an immature industry. And let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the machine of the agency — which typically includes a time tracking intranet, accompanying practices, and, of course, project managers — are just too hard to change.

Why not simply use fee-for-service models that other kinds of service providers offer? It could be because, as several of my respondents told me, that valuing good ideas is very difficult. But valuing time? Well, that’s easy. You just count up the hours and ta-da! An invoice (or estimate) is done.

But there is a huge incentive to change the system for one that is more profitable. Let us not forget, that many agency managers DO know that it is an imperfect system at best. They know fee-for-service is a more profitable model. They “all want to be management consultancies when they grow up” according to one of my respondents. So why not change the model? Why not abandon time sheets?

What is the REAL purpose behind time sheets? Well let’s pretend they didn’t exist first and you’ll see what they do achieve.

The interactive agency WITHOUT time sheets does not instill “time thrift.” There is no system around time. There is no notion of billable hours. There is no sense of a finite period of a day. There is no way to instill into new workers the importance of selling their labor, through the company, to the client. Time is a function of individuals’ approach to work, and not a coordinating concept that everyone must “get behind.”

In an article I recently read, the researcher investigated working life in an Australian hotel. The managers had weekly meetings in which “The Numbers” were dutifully read out. He questioned the department managers about their understanding of The Numbers. Most of them confessed they had no idea how they were calculated or what they really meant. But they did know when The Numbers were “good” or when they were “bad.” And they adjusted their work intensity (and the intensity expected of their team) based on that.

I see a lot of similarities with my research. A fair number of workers mentioned that they have no idea what happens to their time sheets. Some who have been working in the industry for years still “assume” that what they record in their time sheets is what ends up on an invoice to the client. They know time sheets got to HR to “get checked” but they don’t know why.

Imagine the agency without billable hours and you have this Australian hotel without The Numbers. There is no way to coordinate a sense of collective purpose toward increased intensity of work.

Time tracking systems “reveal” the agency world to a new worker in a way that is very advantageous to the company. There is a calculus about time that become habituated and internalized. This kind of “time thrift” is enormously beneficial to a company that effectively sells its labor.


2 responses to “Imagine: An Agency Without Time Sheets

  1. David P Crawford

    Nice post. I honestly thought you were going to try and sell me onthe idea of no time sheets – you surprised me at the end.

    I found this while doing a search for how to have an agency without timesheets… do you think there is a good model out there? If so, please drop me a line.


  2. I think the best system is a “percent of the gate” system, similar to what Hollywood stars negotiate in their movie contracts. When you build an innovative digital experience, you should get a percentage of the yield.

    This is hard to value, however, and risky (you may not yield anything but not because it’s not a great experience).

    At the very least, I encourage agencies to use per diem models instead of hourly models. No one really knows how long an hour is, but a day? We all know how long that is when we work it.

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