Why in-house comms and PR agencies should love timesheets

Timesheets for PR and communications - screaming man
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In the PR and communications world, timesheets are often derided or treated with fear and contempt. There are two main schools of thought against them. First, and the most common, are that timesheets are a chore, hard work, inaccurate or even that they stifle creativity. The second is that it’s better to charge for value created, rather than hours worked.

The problem is that neither of these arguments against timesheets are true. There is a kernel of truth in the second, about charging for value, but that’s entirely unrelated to the benefits of timesheets, so I’m baffled why people make it!

This article has been sitting as rough draft for a few weeks and was originally sparked because “how do you keep timesheets” is a recurring question in some of the Facebook PR groups I’m in. I was prompted to finish it because Andy West published a fantastic PR Moment bylined article on why timesheets matter. He makes lots of great points, so I’d urge you to read it (after you’ve finished this one!)

My original draft made some similar points to Andy, so I’ve culled most of those and instead want to focus on myth-busting and rebutting some of the illogical arguments against timesheets. And then sharing some of the business benefits of timesheets

Timesheet myths rebutted

1# Timesheets are boring, painful or innacurate

All these criticisms were 100% true when I started my first PR consultancy job in 1989. They have been untrue since the mid-00s. Back when I first started, timesheets were a pen and paper thing where you manually noted down what you were doing during the day. Except you didn’t. You always forgot and then at the end of the month you’d try to remember and just make the numbers up.

Pen and paper were eventually replaced with specialist software or spreadsheets. But it was still a manual process to log and add your time, which meant it was a pain and often inaccurate.

But since the mid-00s, there have been good programs or apps that do most of the drudgery. There is absolutely no excuse for not doing it. Over the years I’ve used several, but for the last few years have used Toggl or Toggl Track as it’s now known. If I’d known about it even earlier I could have used it since the mid-00s as it was created in 2006. That’s how long this technology has been around, and therefore the painful and inaccurate criticism has been wrong.

Today, Toggl can be integrated into 100+ other apps, so recording time is a simple as clicking an icon or touching the screen. Once you’ve installed the browser extension in Chrome or Edge the button will appear in task and to-do tools like Microsoft To Do, Todoist, Any.do and more; planning tools like Microsoft Planner, Trello, Asana or Basecamp; email and calendar apps like Outlook and Google; and many more.

Toggl in Microsoft Planner

This shows the grey Toggl Track button next to this task in Microsoft Planner. If I’d already clicked then it would be red to show it was recording time. The button will also appear on things like individual emails.

If none of the integrations work for you, then you can automate it even more using tools like Zapier or Integrately. An alternative to task based time tracking is software like RescueTime or Rize which track which apps you’re actually using. The Wikipedia entry for Comparison of time-tracking software lists more than 30, and I’ve already spotted some it doesn’t list!

I can’t see how clicking a button on your existing task list or project plan can be even remotely difficult, especially as you can set most systems to remind you in case you forget to click out of one and in to the next.

The fact is that for the last 15 years, doing timesheets has been both easy and accurate, so your argument is already weak if you still think timesheets today are anything like those monstrosities we once made up at the end of the month.

Update – Toggl tells me I spent 1 hour and 40 minutes creating this article.

2# Timesheets are intrusive and a pointless chore

If you think of timesheets simply as recording what you’ve done or a way for the boss to check up on you then I’d agree they are an intrusive and pointless chore. But if that’s how you are using timesheets then you’re using them in entirely the wrong way and need help to unlock the business benefits.

A much better way is to start by thinking about how you plan your activities to make the most effective use of your time. Your project plan or to do list can become your timesheet, and you simply record the time you spend on each item on your to do list. Through native integrations or third party automation tools, this is as easy as clicking on a button or selecting from a list.

It provides an incentive for everyone to use it as the team can see what needs to be achieved and how they can help each other to achieve the goals and objectives.

If timesheets are something colleagues feel forced into completing then it’s because you’re not using them to create value for your colleagues. Timesheets shouldn’t be used for micromanagement, but to unlock the talent and potential in the team, so people achieve more and enjoy their work more.

3# You should charge for value instead of time

This one has more than a grain of truth, but misses one incredibly important point. Timesheets are to track your costs, not to tell you what to charge. You can charge whatever you want, or more realistically, whatever the client can afford or is willing to pay. If you can convince a client to pay for the value you provide, then brilliant. Although, I’d caveat that with what’s the point if the total number still needs to be the market rate and a competitor is charging the same or less to achieve the same value, but by charging for time?

Timesheets don’t need to have any relationship to what you’re charging. The main purpose of timesheets is to manage internal resources more effectively. If you use automation to achieve in an hour what previously took you four hours, then that makes your PR agency or your communications team more effective. An agency can use the improved effectiveness to improve profitability, or to become more cost competitive by being able to deliver more for the same fee.

Whatever a PR agency charges, the biggest cost component of public relations and communications activity will be people and the time they spend doing it. How can you possibly run an efficient agency or in-house team if you don’t have a clue what it is costing you to do something? Ignorance isn’t bliss.

A realistic understanding of your cost base enables you to make more intelligent decisions about hiring people and investing in automation. Without timesheet data you’re running your agency or in-house team based on guesses and assumptions.

PR agencies need to stop thinking about timesheets as a reporting tool to justify to clients what they’ve been doing for their fee. Most clients are far more interested in the statement of work of what you’re planning to do and tracking it against what you’ve done and the business results it has achieved.

Benefits of timesheets in PR agencies and in-house communications teams

Once we’ve eliminated the ludicrous myths that timesheets are hard, inaccurate or micromanagement we can start to focus on the many benefits.

#1 Resource planning

Every individual is different. I’ve worked with wonderful ex-journalists who can rattle off a brilliant news release or statement with half an hour, while it would take me a couple of hours to write something that’s still not quite as good. Likewise, I can get to the heart of the business challenge and develop a strategy to tackle it in a quarter of the time they could do it… if indeed they could as it’s not their strength.

If used properly, timesheets should benefit colleagues and make their job more enjoyable. People can focus on what they enjoy and are good at. If you’re thinking of or using timesheets as a chore or micromanagement tool then you don’t understand timesheets.

Because timesheet software can be easily linked to other software, then you can connect it to systems like contact relationship management (CRM) so you can not only see what people were spending time on doing, but how long they were spending doing it. This enables you to unlock even more insight from your CRM. And if you’re not already using a CRM to track interactions with journalists and stakeholders, then that’s another discussion we need to have.

#2 More accurate quotes

If you don’t know how long it’s going to take to do a project how can you work out what it’s going to cost to deliver? Even if you charge clients for ‘value’ you still need to know what time has been expended in order to know how profitable the project was, or for in-house teams how effective it was.

Years ago, I worked with a client that sold job management software. It was used to track how long different tasks took, so the longer it was used for, the more accurate it became because there was more data about how long the minimum, average and maximum times were for different jobs. This data was used for resource planning to work out the capacity available for appointments. This is ‘old’ technology, yet the PR and communications sector largely still isn’t benefiting from it.

3# Evaluate how effective activity has been

If the cost of the PR activity is time then it’s impossible to measure how cost-effective it was if you don’t know how much time was invested to achieve it.

If you’re comparing two B2B communications campaigns and one resulted in two sales leads and the other resulted in 17 then the one with 17 was clearly better. Except it isn’t once you consider time, which is impossible to know without timesheets as the second cost £78 per lead, compared to just £60 per lead for the first.

Timesheets are at the bottom level of measurement and evaluation metrics, but you can’t really work out the higher levels of outputs, out-takes, outcomes and business impact unless you understand what the inputs were to achieve them.

4# Justify investment in automation tools

At Purposeful Relations we’re constantly exploring new automation, AI and machine learning tools for public relations and communications. Everything from tools that predict how likely it is a specific journalist or media outlet is to pick up on and use a news story to ones that predict how likely a news story is to grow and go ‘viral’, through to tools such as AI writing to generate copy and tools that automatically turn articles into videos.

One way to justify the investment in these tools is to identify if they actually will save money by making the team more effective. But to do this the team needs to know how much time it is potentially saving.

5# Run better campaigns

Once we’ve freed colleagues from the tyranny of timesheets and embraced how they liberate individuals and teams then we can also focus on what else is going to help a team function more effectively and achieve better results. Timesheets shouldn’t be used to measure or evaluate the success of colleagues or teams.

There are lots of approaches, but one technique that I like and is rarely seen in the PR and communications sector is OKR, or Objectives and Key Results. OKRs enable teams to focus on working together towards successful outcomes. I’ll make it the subject of a future article.

Want to talk?

If you want to a quick chat about how we can help your team to select and use the right PRTech or CommTech tools to make timesheets a benefit to improve performance, instead of a painful chore, then please get in touch.

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