Help me focus on the hourly details of agency work
February 9, 2014 7:41 AM   Subscribe

My company is becoming more focused on billable hours and resource allocation and I an sinking. Please help me stay afloat.

My company has been expanding and restructuring. As part of this change, about six months ago, I got a new boss. While I had previously mostly been left to my own devices on projects and received very positive feedback, it feels like everything I do now is incorrect. I work as a project manager at a design agency and there is an increased focus on billable hours, invoicing, and making sure that each employee is correctly allocated and spending their 40 hours a week appropriately. While I am good at the actual work we do (design, strategy, etc.), I have never been perfect at the small details of accounting for my time. I can't seem to stop making small mistakes like billing 15 minutes to the wrong sub-project.

I've mentioned to my new boss that it would be helpful to manage fewer projects so that I can better adapt to the increased focus on hours, etc. Currently, I manage a disproportionately large share of the company's work. However, it doesn't look like any changes are coming in the near future due to other issues being a higher priority.

Given this, I would love some advice from others who are successful in these types of environments:
1) Are there tricks you use to make sure that your hours and the hours of those you supervise are on target? Similarly, are there any tricks to becoming a more details-oriented person when you aren't particularly interested in the details? The funny thing is that I'm great at noticing design details.
2) How should I respond when mistakes are pointed out? Right now, I'm extremely apologetic, but I almost think that this is making things worse.
3) How do I stop driving myself crazy? Right now, each time a mistake is pointed out, I get stressed out and then have trouble focusing that day and often have trouble sleeping at night. This of course makes things worse the next day because I'm tired and less productive. By Friday, I'm a basket case.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Take a few hours of overhead and pre-categorize your work. If I'm doing 'X' it bills as this, if I'm doing 'Y' it bills as this. Start with the most common things you do, then stop when you cover 80% of your tasks (or whatever is appropriate).

Now 80% of your work will be classified properly as long as you refer to your cheat sheet.
For the remaining 20%, you may have to think about it. Lastly, recognize your overhead is just that... if it isn't client billable, you want to be doing it as little as possible. That means if you are recording your time as you transition between parts of your day, you can bill for the time as it is transition time. If you save it all up and try to do it all on Friday or before your hours are due, you'll find it takes you longer AND its a large enough chunk of time away from the project that you can't bill the client for the time you spend recording your hours.
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:57 AM on February 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

There's been a similar change in focus where I work and I find the crucial thing is to find the easiest possible way for me to track my hours. If it gets too complicated, it's less likely to be done.

Fortunately I generally only have to worry in terms of half-days so I keep a diary next to me and at lunch and at the end of the day, I fill in what I spent that half-day doing.

Could you do similar with an hour-by-hour diary and just set a little reminder for you to fill in that page? Perhaps get your teams to do likewise and then aggregate the results (if you don't have pre-existing software that does this - If you have something like outlook or google calendar then a shared calendar with some form of colour coding for the different projects could work).

For 2) and 3), I'd recommend looking into something like mindfulness (which is not woo) so when a mistake happens, rather than focusing on the mistake, focus on how to stop the mistake happening in the future. Analyse why you made the mistake? Was your attention on something else? Were you too busy to keep your eye on the ball? Was it just a case of 'everyone messes up sometimes'?

Especially for 3) try to find some way to disconnect work with post-work to stop your brain running around its little mistake treadmill. Can you listen to audiobooks on the drive/commute home? Do you get changed out of work clothes as soon as you get home? Find some way to delineate work time from home time!
posted by Wysawyg at 8:06 AM on February 9, 2014

Rule number one is bill it right when you do it. Don't figure it out at the end of the day.

Also set up a spreadsheet where you can keep track of how much you've done already if the billing software doesn't have daily tracking. Focus on getting it right each day so you aren't running to catch up at the end of the billing cycle.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:11 AM on February 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I work in an industry that operates in this way, and at every firm I've worked there has been a group calendaring function of some kind where everyone maintains their current and next week (farther out if applicable) project allocation. (Almost everywhere we've used a shared spreadsheet, but one place had written a custom CRM application that was a little bit nicer.) And then that calendar gets met on to review by at least management and PMs 2-3 times a week (usually Mon first thing, Wednesday end of day which is the official deadline to have the following week filled in, and then Friday morning or midday to quickly confirm).

So if I have 20 hours of work to do next week on Project AB, 4 on BC, and 9 on CD, I have to block that out by the end of the previous week. So I pretty much know what I'm doing and what I'll be billing every day, and i know when I've got a gap I need to hustle to fill. Everyone else knows whether I am or am not available for Emergency X that just dropped in their laps, and management can decide that it takes precedent over project BC so that might push to the following week.

So now I have a plan and I generally know what I'm doing. Now I just need to get to work and do it, plus the 20 other little things that come up, and track my time.

I have experimented with most of the paper tracking tools here, and my primary tool is the bound version of the Emergent Task Planner he sells on Amazon, but you can print your own. There's also an Excel version if you like electronic. Someone wrote an electronic version of the paper form that was super simple and went ding every 15 minutes, and I am drawing a complete blank on what it was called now. Bubble Timer appears to be a similar port, though. Any task tracker like that should get you past the mis-billing problem, as you can track on multiple lines based on sub-project.

I will tell you that trying to remember at the end of the week what you did in 15-minute increments for the previous 5 days doesn't work. You will mis-bill and you will make more data entry errors. Do it at least twice a day, just accept that it has to be done at least twice a day if not hourly or in actual 15-minute dings if you're switching gears that frequently.

You have to chill about mistakes. It's a learning curve, and yours will improve once you up your organizational process a little. Say sorry and thank you, fix it if it's something you fix yourself, and then decide what you need to hack in your system - or who you need to ask for clarification - to keep it from happening again. Everyone makes a billing error now and then, that's why there's always a review process, but you can ALSO review, before you submit, to look for obvious mistakes. But the better your minute-to-minute tracking is, the better your timesheets will be.

I can't even imagine losing sleep over a billing error, but I've been doing this for 15 years and I've made them all. Since I'm not a brain surgeon, it's not actually life or death. And yes, doing the big dramatic routine is like apologizing a dozen times for calling the wrong extension; it's uncalled-for and makes the error a hundred times more memorable if you just say dang it, I'm sorry, and make a point of not doing it again.

There is no perfect billing system, and that's why there is always a review process. And if this is new for everyone at your company, everyone is making even more than what will eventually be a normal amount of errors. Part of the reason for that is that the system in place right now will need refinement, so when you do make a billing error, you need to kind of think through how it happened. If it's an easy mistake to make and you can think of a way to make it harder to make, suggest that to someone. If you can improve your own process and reduce the likelihood of that mistake, do that. This is just a process problem, they're all process problems, and they are almost all solve-able.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:18 AM on February 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I track my time in six-minute increments. Everyone has a different system, but this is what works best for me:

Keep a pad of paper at your desk that is devoted solely to tracking time. At the beginning of the day, write down the date. When you start working on something, write down the start time, the name of the client/project and a short description of what you'll be doing. When you stop, write down the stop time. Repeat. At the end of the day, enter this information into the tracking software.
posted by ewiar at 1:54 PM on February 9, 2014

Ask enough questions about the business that you understand what they're specifically interested in learning, and then pay closer attention to tracking the hours related to that. For instance, are they trying to get at "how much of our studio's time is spent working on non-billable activities?" If so, make sure you understand how your work contributes to that answer.

Ironically, a lot of places I've worked at that require me to fill out a timecard for billable hours, don't bill their clients on a time and materials basis. If they're working on fixed bid projects but collecting billable hours, there's a bit of a disconnect. It often means they're trying to understand something.

Are we running as efficiently as possible?
What kinds of skills should we be hiring for?
Are we scoping our projects well or poorly?
Are we going to make our margin this quarter?

If you're screwing up at the micro-focus level, start understanding the macro.
posted by nadise at 4:33 PM on February 9, 2014

I do what ewiar does except with 15 min increments. Something takes less than 15 minutes, it gets billed 15 minutes anyway. I write it on a ruled notepad with vertical rules separating the columns: Start time, stop time, client, task. Total it up at end of day.

It's easier to remember for me if it's on a clipboard on my desk always in sight rather than a software program that I've minimalized and then forgotten to update.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 4:43 PM on February 9, 2014

There are tons of online time-tracking apps that can do this for you, or at least make it really easy. I use Harvest, but many other options exist.

Develop a system of opening and closing projects. Every time you switch to a new project or task, restart the timer. Clock out for lunch and breaks. Use the timer all day long. It's not a hard habit to get into. At least, it's probably easier than whatever you're doing now. When you need to account for your time, just run a report. You can have your employees or colleagues use it too, and the aggregate data will be automatically calculated.
posted by Leontine at 9:58 AM on February 11, 2014

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