POV: Timesheets are hated by creatives – so why have we enforced them?

Time tracking is the standard process in today’s creative industry, but many businesses implement such systems counterintuitively. If the data is inaccurate, and they elicit a groan from the creative teams instructed to use them, have we just over-designed the process of design?

POV is a new column written by It’s Nice That’s in-house Insights department. Published fortnightly, it shares perspectives currently stirring conversation across the creative industry. POV digs deeper into industry discussions and visual trends, informed and inspired by creatives we write about. To uncover visual trends and insights from within the global creative community through our Insights department, get in touch here.

The process of design requires a balance of functionality and creative flair – a mysterious equilibrium that is difficult to plan for. And yet, across the creative landscape today, the majority of agencies, studios, freelancers and in-house design teams are required to quantify creativity through one particular daily task: filling out timesheets.

On paper, the reasoning behind tracking time in design businesses makes perfect sense. In an ideal world where unruly client feedback, miscommunication and everyday life interruptions are non-existent, dividing a designer’s day into specific tasks can provide balance. With the data supplied by timesheets, creative teams can resource projects with appropriate roles, keep an eye on overtime, ensure billability and identify inefficiencies to be rectified when the next project proposal is approved. But, in speaking to various creatives at companies who abide by schedules, this isn’t the world we live in – is it?

In recent years an intensified demand for ever-evolving design assets, coupled with the increase in individuals working remotely, has led to the widespread adoption of time tracking. There are now countless tools, programmes and hacks to plan the process of creativity which, although introduced with the best intentions, provide little breathing room for the unpredictable reality of actually making something.

From our interviews (conducted anonymously due to the fact that our interviewees were speaking about processes in their current companies), most people implementing these systems in creative workplaces also seem to be taking a counterintuitive approach to enforcing timesheets. For example, in a hilariously ironic managerial decision, one agency locks its creatives out of their computers if timesheets are incomplete. At others, an emphasis is placed on providing exact detail. One in-house creative told us of having to fill out timesheets on an hourly basis, while another detailed how their team is instructed to track time down to 15-minute blocks. Such approaches are built from the assumption that the capability to create can be commodified, leading us to question if we’ve in fact over-designed the process of designing.

Outside of timesheets being imposed by team leaders, providing proof of billable time is also an increasing frustration amongst self-employed creatives. One designer we spoke to, who juggles editorial projects in both full-time and freelance capacities, explained that as a contractor, timesheets are often referenced as a mode of payment. Starting out they were taught that providing clients with hourly rates over project rates was the preferred option – a guarantee that time spent on the project would be accounted for. In time, however, managing their own workload and working with project rates has proven better for their overall creativity.

In this instance, narrowing down their design process to the hour felt at odds with their personal style of work. Admittedly, the creative noted that they can lack “the organisation and diligence required to accurately track my hours,” but added: “I guess a nicer way of putting it is that when I’m really engrossed in a creative project, my working style is really nonlinear. I take a lot of breaks, do mini bursts of work, switch between projects etc…” Even if you happen to be the most detail-oriented creative out there, where do you draw the line on a project tracked by the minute?

“I think design work is hard to quantify, even if you’re organised,” the designer says. “I think about my work all the time and often find myself writing ideas down, browsing for inspiration. If I’m doing anything even remotely related to my project, whether it’s casually flipping through magazines or websites or chatting with a friend about my process, do I charge for that?”

A linear, hourly approach also doesn’t account for educational, cultural learning that the creative has undertaken at personal cost. Yes, it may be factored into a higher day rate to mirror their experience, but who hasn’t had a client question a fee by reasoning that “it’s only a quick turnaround brief”? In fact, another freelance graphic designer we spoke to admitted to fibbing about how long it would take them to complete a project to ensure payment wasn’t reduced simply because they’re a fast worker.

Such feedback also proves that timesheet data, used to determine agency costs and team size, is largely unreliable. This belief is shared by an individual It’s Nice That spoke to, currently responsible for the operations of an in-house creative team at a brand, whose experience extends to implementing time tracking systems at agencies. Such systems, they admitted, can be helpful to support an agency’s pricing model, “which helps translate the level of effort to the client audience – who often have little knowledge or respect to the time that needs to go into delivering good creative.” However, in their experience, timesheets remain filled with inaccurate information. “Conversations with clients were never based on someone spending a few extra hours or days on a piece of work, but rather a significant change in deliverables or timings,” they explain. “And, from a creative operations point of view, they took a lot of time to manage and keep track of and I’m not sure the return was that great. All of that on top of the fact that I’ve never met a creative who enjoys filling in a timesheet.”

In their current role, the creative team doesn’t follow the rigid timesheet structure of our other interviewees. Instead milestones are outlined, offering individuals the flexibility to structure their week – relayed with the caveat that this is possible as an in-house brand team. Looking at agencies, however, this doesn’t necessarily mean the end of timesheets. Instead they recommend a re-evaluation on where time tracking can benefit your business, with a focus on commerciality as opposed to the day-to-day admin of being a creative.

While “creativity isn’t linear”, projects can follow similar patterns of stages. “I would look to track a sample number of projects throughout the year to determine that our pricing and scoping truly reflected an average of time spent per stage of a creative brief, and use that to inform our pricing strategy,” they advise. “I would do this with the knowledge that some projects would be completed going over the scope of time, and others delivering under. My advice is less for the creatives having to fill these timesheets out, but more for the business owners to really take a step back and question where the biggest return on investment is.”

When we first discussed the topic of timesheets as a potential POV, we’d envisaged this piece acting as a for and against. In our conversations with creatives across businesses, however, the temperament towards timesheets was resoundingly negative. From small studios through to household names, it appears near impossible to strike the balance needed. Perhaps, as our final interviewee outlines, we’re simply using the wrong tools for the process: “The idea of tracking a creative project via timesheet is like trying to weigh flour with a tape measure.”

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POV is a column written by It’s Nice That’s in-house Insights department. Published fortnightly, it shares perspectives currently stirring conversation across the creative industry.

As a column, POV is an editorial reflection of our wider work on Insights, digging deeper into industry discussions and visual trends, informed and inspired by creatives we write about. To learn more about visual trends and insights from within the global creative community through our Insights department, click below.

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.


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