How to track overtime accurately: low- vs high-tech

Last updated on 
August 19, 2020

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No matter what your feelings are on overtime, you can’t do anything about it without actually measuring it. Tracking overtime is now a legal requirement in certain jurisdictions, but it makes good sense wherever you work — being essential for managing team resources, workloads and wellbeing. With rights and entitlements on both sides of the table, tracking overtime accurately is in the interests of both employees and employers. But what’s the best way of doing it? We compare the best high- and low-tech solutions for tracking overtime, assessing their relative merits and limitations.

Tracking overtime benefits everyone

Before the Coronavirus pandemic, the average American worker worked a little over four hours overtime every week, and 59% of remote workers were found to work overtime at least once a week. Given the sharp increase in workload required to deal with the unfolding crisis, these numbers are likely to have increased substantially. According to new research, one in four public healthcare managers in the UK are working more than 20 hours overtime a week during coronavirus pandemic. Even outside of healthcare, some employers are even telling their employees to work overtime to meet increasing market demand.

For employers

The need to keep overtime visible and accountable is now more pressing than ever, and tracking overtime benefits everyone in the work equation. For employers, it helps ensure compliance with labor laws and lets companies monitor one of the biggest ongoing expenses. In certain jurisdictions, overtime tracking is actually a legal requirement — as in the EU, where all companies must accurately track employee work hours.

It also supports effective resource management, allowing managers to review company-wide work patterns and split work effectively between employees. It also has tremendous value for HR, surfacing unmanageable workloads and problematic behaviors before they lead to employee burnout, disengagement and broken workplace culture.

For employees

For employees, accurate overtime tracking is a no-brainer for ensuring correct compensation and protection against wage theft. It provides indisputable evidence for addressing unsustainable or unfair working practices. Tracking overtime is also a useful aid for employee self-management. As more people become directly responsible for managing their workload and schedules from home during the pandemic, it can help employees protect against over-working or sacrificing their work/life balance.

Accurately tracking daily work hours allows employees to adjust their schedule to stay within their weekly capacity. By knowing how many hours they spend on certain tasks, they can also make smarter, more efficient decisions about how they use their time.

So, how do you actually go about tracking overtime?

The high-tech approach: automate it

Automatic time tracking apps like Timely can now capture all your overtime in the background for you. You just need to install the app and get back to work — all your work activity will be recorded to a private timeline without any manual input. Timely is particularly smart, using AI to draft daily time sheets for you. These time sheets just require your approval to be shared with colleagues and managers, meaning no data goes public without your consent.

Your publicly approved hours are then fed into one central dashboard, which you and your manager can use to monitor overtime. This includes information on where you are against your weekly capacity — including a clean progress bar and warning color code for quick visual reference.

Whenever you’re about to log overtime, Timely will make you aware of it — so you can either adjust the rest of your working week to compensate for it, or export an overtime report whenever you’re ready.

Advantages

Accuracy: Automatic trackers are the most accurate method of documenting overtime currently available. By providing a flawless digital record of all working hours, they act as a definitive source of truth for employees and employers. Commonly overlooked hours — like out-of-hours emailing — and tasks that are hard to meticulously document — like overrunning meetings and travel — are all dutifully recorded.
Low-effort: Automation removes fiddly manual input and timer management. This frees employee time and attention for focusing fully on high-value work. Everyone can work naturally without needing to continually break their focus to start and stop timers. You can also safely assume that if the app is intelligent enough to use AI, it almost certainly has a mobile app for on-the-go time management too.
Rich insight: Aside from providing overtime totals, automatic trackers provide a whole world of insight on company overtime. Managers can review individual workloads and working patterns, as well as spot the clients, projects and tasks that incur the most overtime. Employees can see how long different tasks tend to take and see where their time goes in intense detail — helpful for creating better schedules and improving future work estimates.


Limitations

Cost: Sophisticated overtime trackers can’t be developed for free. This shouldn’t be a problem if companies are paying for the technology, but it may pose a barrier to entry for employees who are using it on their own initiative (tools tend to cost around $5 a month for individual users).
Training: While smart tools are designed to be as easy-to-use as possible, you will still need to get used to a new tool.

⚡️ Trial automatic overtime tracking free

The low-tech approach: do it manually

At the other end of the tech scale, you can do the job by hand. You essentially two options here:

1. Use a spreadsheet and work hours calculator

2. Use a timer-based timesheet app

With the first method, you need to keep a running log of when you start and finish work, and take breaks throughout the day. You can then feed these timestamps into an online work calculator to see how many hours you work each day. Then plug your total back into your spreadsheet, so you can quickly calculate total working hours for a specific time period whenever you need to.

With the second method, you need to start and stop timers as you move between your daily tasks.

Alternatively, you can manually plug in the time you spend on tasks and projects across each day. Most online timesheet apps let you do this on desktop or mobile, so you can manage your timesheet as you move between devices.

Advantages

Cost: At least for the first method, there are tons of free online spreadsheet and work calculators out there.
Little training: It’s low-tech for a reason — there’s very little you need to learn here to get started. However, if you opt for second method, you’ll still need to work your way around a new UI and get used to the platform.

Limitations

Inaccuracy: Being completely dependent on human input, both of these methods are extremely vulnerable to error and misrepresentation. It’s easy to forget to stop a timer, or look at the clock when you take a break, and even when logged throughout the day, manual time sheets are only ever 67% accurate. The low-tech approach sadly won’t produce a dependable record of your overtime (which kind of defeats the point of tracking overtime in the first place).
Source: Accelo study, “Time is Money”


Inefficiency: both methods are high-effort, requiring constant management throughout the day. This daily admin quickly adds up, often necessitating a time entry in its own right — with some people spending two hours each week tracking their work hours.
Unnatural: While they may have a simple UI, manual overtime tracking is not user-friendly. It requires you to stay conscious of the time, splitting your attention between your work and the clock. Since our brains weren’t designed to focus on more than one task at a time, this is extremely hard to sustain. It results in constant interruption, compromising your ability to do focused deep work.
Cost: Online timesheet apps aren’t always free, and the more user-friendly ones tend to have similar subscription prices to automatic time trackers.

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