Many years ago, I was in New York City presenting our TimeControl timesheet product to the IT department of a large multi-national bank.  There were easily 20 attendees if not more all sitting around a very long cherry-wood conference table that stretched to my left and right.  I was in the middle and across from me were the CIO and the VP of Finance.  That they were in this meeting was a measure of how important the selection of a timesheet product was to them.

At one point the discussion turned its attention to how task progress would be measured and how TimeControl would be able to capture this progress and send it back to their project planning system.  I explained proudly that TimeControl had several methods of measurement that could be entered by users on the timesheet including percent complete and the remaining estimate to complete at both the assignment and overall task level.  The VP of Finance suddenly seemed confused by my answer.

“Can’t you measure the progress automatically?” he asked.

“We can measure how much time was spent and we send that to the planning system along with the estimate to complete,” I replied. 

“But that’s not automatic,” he continued.  “It means our employees have to put in their own estimate.  Can’t you just calculate whether the task is complete?”

Now I was confused.

“Well, um,” I answered.  “What if I had a 40 hour task and the employee had just spent 40 hours on that task.  What would you have me report in terms of task progress?”

“That it’s complete,” he said firmly.

Now numerous people around the table became hyper focused on their notepads.

“But what if it’s not?” I said to the VP.

“I don’t understand,” said the VP sounding somewhat irritated.  “If they’ve done the 40 hours, then the task is complete.”

I was at a loss and for a moment the room went silent.

Now the CIO in a move that I became profoundly grateful for, leaned over to the VP and whispered something in his ear.

“What?!” said the VP out loud as though stunned by whatever he’d just been told.

The VP and the CIO stood up and left the room for a moment.  We all stayed in our spots quietly.  A minute later, the CIO returned and asked me to keep going.  We never mentioned the incident again.

While we did make the sale of thousands of licenses of TimeControl, I learned something that I hadn’t fully appreciated before. 

We love something that’s measurable.

What project managers typically refer to as Level of Effort progress takes the original budget of the task, subtracts the amount of effort that has been extended so far and then advances the task by that amount.  This works great when tasks take the exact amount of effort that was planned but can cause mischief when they don’t.  In my experience most tasks don’t take the amount of time planned.  Most tasks are either advance a little faster or a little slower than expected and a few tasks can take a lot more effort than was expected.

But I’ve thought of that VP many times since our fateful meeting.  He was obviously very successful and in a position of tremendous leverage within this bank.  ‘How could our perspectives be so different?’ I wondered.

Well, here’s a big reason: Level of Effort is very measurable.  I should have thought of it instantly.  After all I’m in the timesheet business, but it’s not so obvious if you are thinking like a project manager. 

The conversation has become even more pertinent given the changes we are experiencing recently in how to manage people thanks to the movement of employees to work remotely. 

When we were able to meet with our teams in person on a regular basis, the feedback on a task’s progress was communicated in many ways just in conversation during meetings or discussions.  Without that kind of interaction managers are finding that they are having to adjust their methods in order to look forward at when work will be done.

For many organizations, it was enough to say that we know how much time our staff is in the office, so we have a good understanding of how much progress we will make in the coming days.  With most staff working remotely, that “understanding” is a lot harder to come by.

In my own team at HMS Software, we’ve been working remotely now for almost exactly a year.  It’s amazing to me that it has been that long, but I can see that even in our own teams we are having to manage differently. 

Our focus has shifted from looking at just a list of tasks towards how much time will be left on those tasks.  We are assigning work on the basis of what we believe that employee can complete this week and then managing their progress against those tasks.  We still care greatly about the effort expended but we are primarily using that metric to improve our ability to estimate the work. 

For many of our clients and the organizations that we talk to about their project management process, the challenges have been the same.  Many of our clients have shifted their operations to have many or all of their team working remotely.  The staff are all still connected through applications, video calls, live chat and more of course but they absence of people in the office together is leading to long term changes in how management is conducted and, in particular, how progress is measured.

When someone works from home, the ability to determine if they are focused on the work you’ve assigned is not so obvious.  You can implement technology to determine that someone is present.  Monitoring the status of someone chat window or keyboard activity are choices that we’ve seen but these choices are highly intrusive.  Even if you know that a person is at their keyboard, are you certain that they’re giving your tasks their top priority?  Many people have other distractions when working from home including other family members who are working there or children who are studying there or almost any kind of interruption that can happen at a home. 

Just knowing that someone spent 40 hours at their desk at home while logged into your corporate systems isn’t enough to know that the organization’s work is making the progress we expect.  So, we’re seeing an increasing migration towards a management process that we’ve advocated since our inception as a company and that’s tasked-based-management.  Instead of just looking at how much time a person is at work this change focuses on what did they do with their time.  Assigning tasks with time estimates, even if they’re not classic project management tasks on a schedule has become an increasingly popular method of measuring work.

That suits us at HMS just fine.  TimeControl was designed from the beginning as a task-based-management system so we’re finding ourselves in a position to give good answers when clients and prospective clients ask how they can move beyond time and attendance to measure progress at the activity level.

It may finally be time to stop managing by effort.