For many people, time tracking is tied up with ideas of discipline and surveillance. But in a new era of remote work and autonomy, more companies are turning to time tracking to facilitate team collaboration and employee self-management. A new EU ruling has just made time tracking the central means to protecting worker rights. And with the development of automatic time tracking tools, nobody has to actively waste time doing it.
So is it time to rethink our approach towards time tracking? How do modern time tracking methods impact the workplace? And crucially, will introducing time tracking hurt your culture?
A disciplinary past
The phrase “time tracking” is still heavily tied to its industrial 19th century past as a decidedly disciplinary technology. The historical archive is dominated by managers using time technology to control employees – stipulating routines, the pace of labour and machines, and the pace to which bodies needed to coordinate.
And our social memory of time clocks and Taylorism has made it hard to view time tracking as anything other than a means to control and restrict workers. Even today, many people still feel uncomfortable – or actively hostile – about time tracking and the potential threat it poses to workplace culture.
The biggest concerns centre on the belief that time tracking will:
Invade employee privacy and breed distrust
Introduce low-value tasks into employee workloads
Reduce human performance to numbers
Add stress, kill morale and increase turnover
It’s a pretty unforgiving list. But in a new generation of time tracking technology, are these concerns still valid?
What makes modern time tracking different?
Contrary to popular belief, many modern time trackers actually place the power and benefits of tracking directly into the hands of workers.
By using a data sharing model centred around employee consent, new tracking tools offer workers opportunities to self-manage and organize, while helping managers assess team performance without compromising trust. Using the example of our own automatic tracker Timely, here’s what makes modern time tracking different:
Unlike time clocks of the past or their online equivalents, many modern time trackers automate time data collection and display. Instead of grappling with timers and interrupting your work to take notes, these apps track all the time you spend in different apps, documents, emails and even locations for you. Some like Timely even use AI to translate this data into time sheets automatically too. Automation helps employees track time much more accurately without adding a new unproductive task into their workloads.
It protects individual privacy
Time tracking has huge potential to enable people to do their best work. But to-date, a lot of tools take an aggressive and invasive approach to time data, creating an atmosphere of surveillance and distrust. Instead, tools like Timely are built to protect employee privacy and professional dignity. An individual’s automatically tracked data is recorded to a private timeline that only they can see – and they have to actively approve what information they want to log to their public timesheet. It ensures managers can’t use the tool to spy on employees, and protects company cultures built around trust and respect.
It’s designed for employees, not just managers
Where traditional time tracking focused purely on managerial interests, modern time tracking actually serves the people using the tool. Trackers like Timely come with a suite of tools to help employees understand how they work and take control of their productive performance – from insights on how long they spend on different tasks and what breaks their focus, to intelligent planning tools that help them directly apply those learnings to build a better work schedule.
Beyond only showing managers an employee's start and end time, all the time information teams care about can be dynamically displayed and visible to everyone. Many modern tools provide thoughtful dashboards which make the information you care about most easy-to-find – from real-time project budget tracking and team activity, to resource allocation, overtime and employee capacity. Teams can collaborate without needlessly interrupting each other, comfortable in the knowledge that everything they see has been actively shared by someone.
Taking the right approach
Despite the above, there is still a right and wrong way to approach time tracking – and this ultimately will determine whether time tracking will support or harm your culture. To make time tracking work for your team, you need to carefully consider the following.
1. Know what you are using it for
To ensure time tracking actually supports your company culture, you need to be entirely clear on why you’re using it and how it will benefit your employees. If people don’t see the value of time tracking – or it is not properly communicated form the outset – your culture will likely reject it.
2. Keep time tracking in context
Time tracking shouldn’t be used in isolation to try and assess someone’s performance or value – its insights need to be considered alongside other qualitative measures and activities. At heart, time tracking is more of a discovery than diagnostic tool; it helps you understand how you work and see how different projects pan out. It can help you track certain performance KPIs, but it can't provide the full picture of an employee's professional contribution.
3. Use a tool that matches your approach
Sadly, not all time tracking tools on the market are as honest or employee-led as ones like Timely. Many still use backhanded methods to gain access to employee data – like candid screen capture, mouse motion tracking and even geo-location tagging. It completely vindicates the old idea that time tracking exists for managers to discipline workers. So, if you want to prioritize employee trust and privacy, choose a time tracker that also does that.
Ultimately, if your employees don’t feel comfortable using your time tracking tool, it will injure your culture. Since they will likely use it every day, actually get your colleagues to trial it with you – if it’s too difficult or irritating to use, people will resent using it!