Simple, efficient, web based, timesheet recording, management and analysis.
Founded in 1978, SLB Radio Productions, Inc. (SLB) is a non-profit company that produces radio programs and workshops for youth and families. Over the past five years, we have experienced tremendous growth in (1) projects funded by charitable foundations, (2) performance of contracted services and (3) staffing levels. These three factors created a critical need to improve our time-and-expense tracking systems. Methods such as paper timesheets, emailed hours reports, and shared spreadsheets all resulted in poor employee compliance, overly laborious entry and review, frequent inaccuracy, and untimely information. Perhaps worst of all, it was clear to us that we were not making good use of the information we were gathering; in short, the data set, even if perfect, could not easily be used to make meaningful and timely project management adjustments or decisions.
Based on the above, we began evaluating movement to a software-based system in 2011. The sections below share our challenges, lessons learned and ultimate adoption of DbNetTime. We’ve authored this user study to not only share our experiences, but also to encourage would-be users to fully consider the system’s capabilities and flexibility when evaluating their needs in this area. For our particular needs – which we believe are shared by many organizations – DbNetTime has been the perfect solution.
Our overall needs are require a system that allows us to do the following:
Because our workforce highly technical people (i.e., engineers) as well as educators, artists and musicians (i.e., creatives), finding a system with the right balance of functionality and simplicity was critical -- and difficult. In the end, DbNetTime met all of our requirements, largely because of these aspects of its feature set:
We made several false starts with so-called comprehensive systems, many of which included integrated systems or subsystems addressing areas such as opportunity tracking, proposal generation, detailed project management (e.g., Gantt chart integration), Facebook-like activity streams, QuickBooks integration, human resources management (e.g., performance reviews and staffing projections) and Google Apps integration. The slick interfaces of these rival systems and several of the offshoot features (especially integration with Google Apps and QuickBooks, both of which we use) were very appealing to us at first. However, after evaluating over hundred such systems, we universally concluded that these type of comprehensive systems did not meet our core requirements as noted above, largely because the time-and-expense tracking functionality of these rival systems were (1) insufficient to meet our needs, (2) too complex for 100% user adoption, or (3) beyond our budget. Regarding sufficient functionality, as a one-time consulting engineer who billed his time by the hour for 20-plus years, I found it maddening that many of these systems – unlike DbNetTime -- had no straightforward method to capture, approve and analyze time and expenses by employee, project, time period and other criteria.
In the end, we concluded that the straightforward, simple approach of DbNetTime is actually a huge strength. While other would-be users may have different needs, we found competing systems to be overloaded with functions most employees would not use as well as needlessly artistic and skinnable interfaces that hindered speed, uniformity and functionality. Moreover, regarding budget, some competing systems are running upwards of $20/user/month, an ongoing cost that we could not justify. Discovery of DbNetTime was a "eureka" for us.
Because it was very simple for our Administrator to define employees, a centralized project/task/budget list, timesheet approval routings and access levels, we were able to get started right away. Context-sensitive menus provide helpful information throughout set-up and use.
After we completed our set-up, a simple start-up memo was sent to all staff with instructions. Adoption was immediate, with 100% participation and minimal questions. Other systems would have required a half-day training meeting and several we tested were anything but intuitive.
Our Administrator decided to limit employee views – at least at the onset – to a simple weekly time sheet (with project/task pick list), expense tracking, and the ability to create personal reports. While all Administrator choices can easily be changed after implementation, we chose this simplified view because it is perfect for the work-style and needs of nearly every employee. The weekly time sheet allows them to create row headings for each relevant Project/Task and then enter hours in the corresponding columns for the 7-day week. [Incidentally, while we choose to use a 7-day week and 24-hour work day, DbNetTime Administrators can place constraints to limit data entry (e.g., forbidding entry of more than 8 hours per day, turning off weekends, etc.)].
This structured approach to collecting time data is critical for compliance and completeness. Many competing systems have chosen to “integrate” time data as deep fields within their project management subsystems. We believe it is far more effective for employees to review and enter all of their time data on one screen using a tabular format as provided by DbNetTime. Better still, since these projects last multiple weeks, employees appreciate the ability to begin a new time sheet based on last week's data or based on commonly-used projects. This sense of ownership (i.e., not just entering time but creating the structure for its entry) empowers and organizes users. These features also help employees create their time sheets quickly -- often doing so in a browser window as they work on an hour-by-hour basis -- and also give them an immediate sense of opportunities to work more effectively.
Employees also appreciate the ability to add expenses using the same system. We are baffled that many "comprehensive" packages miss this important feature. Collecting time and expenses through the same interface is a must-have for us since (1) nearly 100% of employee expenses are associated with performance of a project and (2) paychecks include calculations based on hours as well as expense reimbursements and such calculations should not have to be derived from two systems.
When entering time or expenses, employees can add full-text notes to any time and expense entry, a great feature for calling out entries that might require clarification in an organized fashion. Finally, employee submittal of data to their supervisors is a one-click process – as is a reverse routine for supervisors to request submittal of such data if it was not received. These email routines are managed by the company’s existing mail server (in our case hosted at Google). Many competing systems used a “built in” messaging system (i.e., inter-system messages) that we found to be cumbersome.
Our management team has found DbNetTime capable of fulfilling all of our core needs – and then some. Because the data architecture for the program is SQL, some users may find the report filtering tools challenging. After a few minutes, however, their power becomes evident. The filtering menus allow virtually any slice of information to be reviewed with as much granularity as desired, allowing us to answer questions such as:
What expenses have employees claimed for the 2-week pay period I am about to process? The answer is derived from creating an expense report across the date range and all employees, exporting the data to Excel, and importing the data to our payroll system.
How much time is our company really spending on this $1,000 project? The answer is as simple as a search for timesheet hours allocated to all Project/Tasks associated with the Project, exporting the hours, and evaluating the cost. Better yet, this can be done entirely within DbNetTime by assigning labor rates to employees – which can be done using a default rate, project-specific rate, or employee-specific rate – and simply reading the total delivered by the report.
We have not yet found an information need that we could not immediately derive through the intuitive SQL search menus. While, as noted above, some managers may need to learn the methodology behind making a structured query (especially in this era of wizards), it is refreshing and rewarding to be accessing this data directly. The process is straightforward and the query possibilities are powerful.
A few additional notes about use of SQL. By employing a standards-based non-graphical (yet appealing) data management method, i.e., SQL, DbNetTime screens render very quickly. In addition, DbNetTime offers helpful instructions to allow users to build additional data fields in their specific implementation. While we have not found a need for addition al fields (DbNetTime seems to have thought of everything), we did experiment with creating fields and found the process to be straightforward. Finally, while we have had no data loss issues, we are comforted in knowing that the well-tested and SQL distributed data-storage architecture behind DbNetTime lends itself to database repair and recovery in the highly unlikely event of an unrecoverable crash combined with a corrupted backup.
One of our biggest problems in selecting timesheet software was the sheer volume of solutions in the current marketplace. We evaluated nearly one-hundred systems quite thoroughly. Some of the systems we evaluated offered features that, while at first attractive, ultimately did not work well in our environment despite so-called state-of-the-art feature sets and robust integration. For companies who want powerful time-and-expense-tracking that employees will actually use, DbNetTime is a winner. Moreover, for companies that need a reliable and straightforward way to turn volumes of employee time-and-expense data into powerful, actionable information, DbNetTime offers an excellent solution.