Time tracking software: what's the main difference between tools?
July 1, 2019
Following a recent EU ruling, all companies in the EU must now track employee working hours. But other than stating your time tracking system should be “objective, reliable and accessible”, the EU hasn't provided any official advice on how to set one up – let alone what to look out for.
For those new to time tracking software, a quick Google reveals it’s a bit of a minefield. There are a ton of different tools and it’s not immediately clear what the real difference is between them. To support your search, this article provides a broad overview of the main types of time tracking software currently on the market, and what to consider when making your decision.
The main types of time tracking software
Whether a blessing or curse, there is no shortage of online time tracking solutions. But while their names may sound similar, these tools often perform a wild variety of functions. Finding the best fit for you depends on the level of time reporting sophistication you require and what you need time tracking for. Here’s a breakdown of the categories time tracking software falls under – starting with the most advanced and ending with the most basic.
1. Automatic time tracking software
While few tools actually offer it, automation has made its way to time tracking. Automatic time tracking apps record all the time you spend in different work apps, meetings, emails, calls, websites and locations for you while you work. They essentially produce a flawless digital memory of everything you work on. From a private timeline, employees can then click tracked activities to log them to their public timesheet – although some apps use AI to automate timesheet creation too.
For those who find time tracking unproductive, inconvenient and frustrating, automatic time trackers are the ideal solution. By capturing every detail of your day, they are also the most accurate time tracking software currently available. Manual input is completely removed – you don’t have to manage timers or type notes – meaning employees can focus on productive work, and employers can remove the overhead and inaccuracies from their essential admin.
2. Online timesheet apps
Some of the most recognizable names in time tracking software fall under this category. They set out to digitize time tracking and timesheet management, and often come with a lot of additional features to help you manage time across projects, teams and reporting. Dashboards and data visualization usually have a big emphasis, although there is no actual automation beyond email reminders and alerts.
Crucially, these tools don’t solve the problem of time tracking – they simplify it. Employees still have to manually start and stop timers to actually get time data into dashboards. It involves constant interruption, which over the course of a day can add up to a sizeable amount of time spent managing the tool. The UI can be pleasing and easy to use, but for companies prioritizing accuracy and precision, tools dependent on manual entry often aren’t robust enough.
3. Online time clocks
This is your classic “clock in, clock out” time card approach to time tracking. You click a timer on your computer whenever you start a new task, and click it again to stop it once you’re done. Most online time clocks provide fields for entering notes, but the UI tends to end there. These apps can be accessed across devices, meaning you can start and stop timers from mobile devices as well as your desktop.
Online time clocks effectively move a traditional analogue time clock to an online digital setting. There are no massive new innovations – you still have to remember to manage timers and type notes. Since people frequently forget to stop timers (or start them in the first place), time records are often constructed after the fact, leaving records vulnerable to costly inaccuracies.
4. Hours calculators
Hours calculators are the most “bare bones” approach to digital time tracking, so there are tons of free versions of them to choose from online. They essentially provide a “from-to” computing interface for people looking to total their working hours. You type in when you started work and when you finished, including any breaks you had, and the tool quickly does the maths for you.
No frills, no insights, no content for those hours – this tool is purely about marking attendance. It’s not really a time tracking tool as such, but rather a very specific calculator. You need to keep an accurate manual record of your hours separately, which as we’ve already seen is almost impossible. Useful if you simply want to calculate your working hours, and nothing more.
Making an informed decision
There are a few key variables to keep in mind when choosing a new time tracking software. While this list is by no means exhaustive, the most important relate to:
How reliable and robust are the records produced by your time tracking tool? If you simply want to get a general idea of how you spend your day, a lower-tier tracker may work. But if you need to prove compliance with labor laws or bill transparently for all your work, you’ll likely want an error-free automatic solution.
Ease of use
How easy is it for employees to get up-and-running with the tool? Will you need to host training sessions, or is the tool onboarding process fairly comprehensive? Does it have more features than you actually need?
What do you actually have to do to use the tool? Does it involve managing timers or creating your own reports? How often do you have to interact with it each day? Will it introduce another low-value admin task into your employees’ workflow?
Does the tool protect or injure the professional dignity of its users? Will employees feel comfortable using it, knowing their privacy is respected? Or does it use underhand methods to invade that personal space? Steer clear of time tracking apps that take screenshots and monitor mouse movements without employee knowledge or consent.