7 reasons why Timesheets for Engineers should be abolished

I have worked for many Engineering companies during my career and had the privilege of working with many extraordinary people developing highly complex systems. Still today I admire my former colleagues’ innovation, knowledge, and commitment to working in teams.

Systems Engineering is truly a unique discipline to be a part of. It keeps me curious. It enables us to confidently progress forwards into great technical uncertainties, illuminating the unchartered paths ahead of us.

However, being a Systems Engineer does not guarantee our success, we can be forced off the simplest path by the impact of negative human influences or unnecessary bureaucratic processes.

And there exists a specific irritant on this journey that I just cannot reconcile. Timesheets. I have worked in companies that mandate timesheets for every employee, even booking right down to the hour.

In my opinion timesheets are toxic. They are an outdated and cumbersome activity which only seems to mount unnecessary stresses on Engineers. I am bewildered why these have remained embedded in many organisational cultures when they fundamentally contradict our need to be agile.

I know I am not the only one who believes this to be true. Shockingly I have known Engineers move departments or leave a company to diminish themselves of the responsibility of completing timesheets.

How is it that something so insignificant (according to some people’s perspectives) can trigger such huge negative (and preventable) reactions?

I propose we abolish timesheets in Engineering. And here I present to you 7 reasons why.

  1. Pay Engineers to do engineering, not administration.

The very fact that Engineers must make time during their working hours to complete their timesheets is counterproductive. Surely, if they are working their contracted hours and communicating any issues with project deadlines they should be trusted, and their managers can take the lead booking their time to projects and negotiating discrepancies with project leaders etc.?

To be successful, we need the valuable time of an Engineer to be spent solving technical problems and developing technical solutions. Think of it this way: if it takes an Engineer O.5-1 hour every week to complete a timesheet – that’s 26-52hrs a year. If you multiply this by a whole team or organisation it totals to 1000’s of hours per year – equivalent to having an additional full-time employee (who could be taking tasks off your already over-worked team members and helping to drive innovation).

  1. Timesheets constrain activities

Many value-added activities (especially intangibles) are not easily covered by timesheet categories of work. This can cause great frustration and inefficient working practices. Instead of the Engineer being encouraged to explore new innovative opportunities, that often occur without warning, the culture holds the Engineer back. If they believe they always need to ask for permission they simply won’t venture beyond the set perimeters, resulting in limited project and organisational growth.

I remember a very memorable occasion where senior managers had arranged for an expert from a scientific institution to present his recent studies. This was a great initiative, highly applicable to our ongoing projects, and I fully supported the unexpected opportunity to bring in vital knowledge sharing.

The event was organised over lunchtime, and an invitation sent to all employees. Then came the questions from 10’s swelling to 100’s of employees. Is attending the event bookable on a cost centre?! Or is the expectation that the employees invest their own time for an event organised for the good of the company?!

As one would expect from such a rigid system imposed by timesheets, this became a bureaucratic dilemma. The organisation leaders were trying to encourage the employees to do something positive for their company (as they should be!), but at the same time they couldn’t provide a booking number for the event. Eventually the leaders realised the inherent contradiction in their actions and made it bookable to an unplanned cost centre. The time wasted getting to this point, the cost of the many of hours of individual discussions to reach this conclusion was absurd but it also had another detrimental effect; it resulted in employees feeling demotivated about the event. The rigid implementation of timesheets does not allow for spontaneous activities which would benefit teams and organisations.

One never see’s such constraints within smaller companies, who are often envied for their simpler approaches to working and courageous approach to innovation.

  1. Timesheets are often inaccurate

Timesheets are notoriously inaccurate, and they are often completed inconsistently. Many Engineers leave this task until the end of the month and then waste time trying to remember how they have spent their hours. This turns into a mammoth recalling task which then unwittingly may lead to us ‘fudging’ our timesheets just to ensure boxes are filled and hours are accounted for. I am not condoning this but often there is no other choice because “Computer says No”!

  1. The data is often not used for anything useful

If you are an employee of a big company what happens every month when thousands of timesheets get sent to Finance? Does each one get scoured by a team of timesheet checkers who compare for anomalies and then mass produce a detailed report breaking down time spent on each activity across a company (using inaccurate data). I would assume not. And if they are – how are they accurately and consistently making these checks? On paper timesheets are a way to show you are monitoring an employee’s productivity but in reality, timesheets are merely a tick-box exercise. They don’t provide accurate data for driving key decisions, which is a much-needed differentiator for developing successful complex systems.

  1. They can cause anxiety

Timesheets can be the cause of huge stresses for engineers, who just simply want to do, ENGINEERING!!! It is not just the time it takes to complete timesheets it is the pressure they put employees under. Having to break down their time spent and give every hour meaning can leave us questioning our impact and then feeling apprehensive when we submit it.

We are left asking ourselves – Did I spend too much/little time on this task? How can I justify this? Did I account for every hour? Will I be judged as incompetent? Am I contributing in the same way as my colleagues? Will there be repercussions? This small insignificant task can cause a whole spiral of negative thoughts. We want the Engineer’s energy to be directed towards their actual work not zapped by unproductive tasks!

  1. They work against agility

Timesheets are rigid tools which force you to look backwards at the time and money spent, not forwards. As Engineers we advance by looking to the future to solve, learning from the past but not rehashing minute details. Timesheets work against our natural desire to be forward-thinking and productive with our time.

  1. They take accountability away from Managers

Managers are paid to oversee the performance of individuals and teams – and part of this involves taking accountability for agreeing and reporting the hours of their teams. Any individual issues should be raised in person – after all if there is a problem, filling out a timesheet is not going to solve it!

In summary, timesheets are time-wasting and laborious. They are a petty management task which can result in driving a mistrusting wedge between employees and senior staff. I see no place for them in organisations wishing to motivate and innovate their employees.

Managers, I call upon you to challenge the status quo – be a leader, be innovative and join me in my proposition to abolish timesheets.

Let’s make managers and employees accountable for their own hours and actions in more transparent and productive ways e.g., doing their actual jobs!

I know this is easier said than done. To make a positive change, you need courage. To abolish inefficient ways of working (that have strong precedence) you need courage. But I implore you have courage as the fruits will taste delicious – not toxic like timesheets.

– Mike Johnson (Co-Founder, SE-Training GmbH)