Calling time on timesheets

The clock is ticking – both literally and metaphorically – for the timesheet in Australia. Timesheets have for more than five decades provided the central measure of effort in professional services like accounting, law and more recently, the IT sector. But is the completion of timesheets really necessary?

Capturing time and attendance started in earnest 1888 with the Bundy Clock. Designed to monitor workers movements in and out of factories it became the de facto way to provide evidence people were at work. For industrial manufacturing a perfectly acceptable way of accounting for people and providing the basis for remuneration. It also gave birth to a whole new branch of management science – operational efficiency, productivity and effectiveness. Perhaps an early example of the power of data in a work setting. But as professional services evolved in the mid 20th century, the same desire for measuring output led to the adoption of timesheets as a mechanism for control, measurement and reward.

At one end of the value chain timesheets accounted for transactional services such as IT support or commodity style software engineering. And at the other end, lawyers and physicians. Nowadays, for mainstream project-based resource, increasingly customers and service providers are moving to a model of either outcomes-based services or fixed-price engagement models. In the age of Agile, time management is no longer the only meaningful measure of effort.

However, the Fair Work Commission (FWC) in Australia has other ideas. They want professional services firms to capture timesheets for all their staff irrespective of rank or role. As Employment Hero CEO, Ben Thompson pointed out in a recent AFR article. “It would undo so much of what we’ve strived to put in place, which gives employees flexibility, decent pay and decent conditions. We don’t need someone external coming in.”

He’s not the only one to have reservations about such a rule. The CTO of a major Australian financial services firm explained it like this: “Making timesheet completion a mandatory is a step backwards. At the same time, depending on the maturity of an organisation, there is a place for it.” He goes on to point out one of the challenges of adhering to outcomes as a measure: “Being paid for outcomes is great in a world where everyone agrees the outcome has been delivered.” He concludes: “There needs to be flexibility in the approach rather than a blunt instrument.”

The message is clear – one size doesn’t fit all.  In his bestselling book The 4-Hour Week, Timothy Ferriss, talks about Time Management: “Just a few words on time management: forget all about it.”

He goes on to explain filling your days with tasks to do is pointless and unproductive. Just as unproductive perhaps as being held to account for filling in timesheets.

Central to Tim’s philosophy is the belief that time management for most people is a tyranny we must abandon if we are to stand any chance of achieving our potential as human beings.

And a great example of how distorted life can become when time becomes the measure of output is the way the gig economy has driven down wages. Another CTO from the finance sector explained: “The ‘free market’ has led to people driving their own cars at horrendous true hourly rates after costs, for companies like UBER, with no benefits while the company itself is valued at more than the combined value of the top 3 auto manufacturers who in turn pay their staff well and provided sick leave during COVID-19.”

The simple message is we need balance and a system that protects the people and encourages innovation.

FWC’s plans could quickly slow down economic growth at the very time when we need it most. The professional services industry is now more than ever driven by producing outcomes – not just results. Outcomes reflect the origins of the problems we solve. Results simply say: “We’ve finished.”

If the FWC is successful in getting the tech sector to adopt blanket timesheet compliance, Australia will become disadvantaged on the international stage. Not something we need at the end of a global pandemic perhaps. Anyone with an interest in the well-being of the sector and those whose livelihood depends on it should contact their elected government representative to lobby for this initiative to be stopped before it does more harm to an industry already under economic pressure from the global pandemic.