Money Matters

5 better habits to improve billable hours

consultants looking at computer, billable hours

At Kimble, we recently commissioned some research on the working hours of accountants, lawyers, IT consultants, marketers and other professionals who track billable hours. We found that about a quarter of them under-record what they actually work, and many felt their managers were unaware of this. As a founder and business builder myself, I understand the drive and enthusiasm that can lead dedicated professionals to go that extra mile. But it is important to have a handle on what the real numbers are, so you can improve your employees’ day to day experience and your company’s overall health. These five habits can help.

1. Encourage staff to monitor input as well as output.

There is a vogue today for judging people on the outcomes rather than the effort they put in. But that can mean putting bright young people in situations where they have to work 20 hours to do what someone else said they would do by the end of the day. If the real time tasks take is out of whack with the billed time, that is an issue for the business in the long term. And if we assess people only on their outputs, how do we know if they could not have done even better?

2. Don’t ask staff to record the wrong data to support a manager’s poor estimate. 

If you don’t record how much time it actually takes to do something, or you deliberately don’t record it accurately, or you don’t pass that information on, then there is no way of improving the estimates. People should be encouraged to put in the right data even if it isn’t what you want to hear.

3. Don’t lower work hours assessment to win a strategic contract.

In a previous role, I served as founder of a consulting business. If we had to cut a price to win a “strategic” piece of work, we did this by lowering the rate or adding free days but not by reducing the effort in the estimate—otherwise we would have been going into a situation knowingly expecting to overwork our employees. Going in on the basis of an erroneous assessment means you don’t get an accurate feedback loop, and you can’t differentiate poor performance from poor estimating. It is easier going forward to raise the rates than to deal with errors caused by wrong information.

4. Use technology to support staff.

There seems to be a lot of concern in the press at the moment about artificial intelligence taking away professionals’ jobs. But technology—intelligently used—can take some of the burden off people’s shoulders and allow them to spend more of their time doing what professionals excel at, using their creativity and expertise in customer-facing roles.

5. Model the behavior that you want to encourage.

A lot of entrepreneurial business people push themselves very hard. In a previous business, I used to send emails out last thing on Sunday evening for people to respond to on Monday morning.  What I started finding was I got responses from people on Sunday night instead. I was not expecting this, but it had become the workplace culture.

Now, in a global business with a workforce in different time zones, everyone has to decide when it is appropriate to deal with email. The digital workplace where people log on from far flung locations, collaborating with others in different time zones, works best where autonomous staff self-manage supported by technology. Increasingly, everyone has to be their own boss. But being your own boss shouldn’t mean driving yourself into the ground!

With these tips, you can implement habits that are healthy for you and your company as a whole, and show your colleagues that working smart is just as important as working hard.