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How To Get Creatives To Complete Their Timesheets


Creatives. Ah, we love them and all their eccentricities and idiosyncrasies. We’re even willing to look past their hipster beards, man buns, keep cups full of perfect flat whites made from ethically purchased coffee beans, talking about the latest edition of that slightly-too-cool-but-just-offbeat-enough-minimalist-magazine tucked under their arm.

Because they do amazing work, because they bedazzle us time and time again, because at the last minute they pull all nighters and bring our ideas to life in breathtakingly beautiful, inventive ways.

But every Friday before the drinks roll around, a kind of reluctance swells up and fills the workplace, an icy cold dread that grips every creative at your firm.

It’s timesheet time.

As an account manager, a project lead or even small business owner you have to wrangle, chase, cajole, coax these errant creatives into filling out that bloody timesheet every week, and if they’re nowhere to be found, you spend the remainder of the day chasing after them. A task which should really only take fifteen minutes, ends up taking double or even triple the time. Which only results in – ironically – a huge waste of time.

Well, something’s got to give. What can you do?

Tip 1: Get on the cloud. Like, now.

Let’s face it, if you’re on any kind of manual, paper-based timesheet system it’s an ENORMOUS pain the butt. I don’t even have words to describe how much of a butt-pain it is – and I’m a writer. There’s even a Medium post that is an ode to how much timesheets suck. Appropriately, it’s called F***king Timesheets. Here are a list of reasons paper-based timesheets are awful:

  • Paper gets lost
  • It’s supremely wasteful (think of the trees!)
  • Not to mention incredibly messy, full of scribbles of estimated time for jobs crossed out and replaced with time actually spent (or a nearer indication of this anyway!)
  • They’re ineffective – everyone ends up lying anyway
  • Paper gets lost (oh wait, we covered that one already)
  • Sometimes it also gets stained (food and coffee are the main culprits)
  • It’s “a sham in agency life” (see the afore-mentioned Medium post)
  • Someone has to perpetually be on nag duty/play the bad guy
  • There’s a lot of double-handling with account managers re-checking to make sure they’re accurate and going back and forth (remember they have to find these wily creatives in the first place)
  • They create bad mojo: mistrust, frustration, anger, sadness, fear, dread...to name just a few.

The reality is timesheets don’t really suck. The paper based system does! Having the right online time tracking solution for your firm actually empowers agencies and creative professionals, helping them get insight into how their business is performing and where time is being spent. Don’t know what system is the best fit? Check out some review sites (GetApp, TrustRadius or Capterra) for an unbiased opinion or some of the articles we’ve written about the magic of implementing a cloud based system:

Tip 2: Offer fun incentives to get those timesheets in on time

What motivates your creatives? Themed parties, cake, artisan coffee tastings? You could host a special event every month that features abundant amounts of one or all of the above if all timesheets are completed on time. Make it more fun by getting people or teams to compete with each other to get theirs in first and reap the rewards. Extra beers every Friday for the month? Sounds like a plan!

Tip 3: Go mobile with your timesheets

“Want to crush someone’s creativity? Get them to fill out a progress report before they’ve finished a project.” – Sean Conrad, Mad Men's Guide to Managing Creative People

Creatives don’t want to be chained to a desk. They’re off in a breakout room, brainstorming and doodling, draped over a bean-bag letting their creativity do its thing, out with a client passionately sharing their vision for the project…

Choosing a time tracking solution that they can use on the go, from wherever they are, is less disruptive to their creative process. Your team should be able to whip out their phone and easily record time or plug it in after the fact. Filling your time in seems like a much less laborious process when it’s done in bite-sized pieces throughout a project (e.g. day by day or task by task) rather than in a lump sum at the end. Plus when Friday rolls around, who can remember what they worked on, on Monday, five whole days ago?

Tip 4: Choose a system that is simple, interesting and visually appealing

Part of the hatred of timesheet systems like Citrix Receiver (what we used at my old agency and the root cause of many a Friday afternoon moans and groans) stems from the fact that they’re clunky, not at all intuitive and hence take extra long to complete. Plus they’re pretty darn ugly and for a creative agency who lives in the land of problem solving and design thinking – it’s pretty insulting to be using such out-dated and – yes I’m using the word again – clunky systems that leave little room for joy, happiness or creativity.

But could filling out timesheets be an enjoyable experience? Sure! No one thought accounting could be fun or “sexy” before Xero came along. Or that lists could be playful before Round was launched. When choosing your software, do your research, test the product out (free trials) and take advantage of the support team that will invariably be on offer. This is the time to ask your questions, to really figure out whether the system you choose is right for your agency!

Tip 5: Be tactful in your approach

No one likes being told what to do. Telling your creatives they have to do something is probably going to be counter-productive, so try a different approach. People are always more likely to do things when they can see the benefit in it for them. For example, demonstrate the link between timesheets and more accurate quoting, which results in more profitability which means more perks for them! 

Tip 6: Walk the talk

As a leader, “you don’t manage the creative process, you enable it” (professor Mukti Khaire). But if as a creative leader you’re “too busy” to complete your own timesheet, what sort of precedent does that set? Rather than let timesheets become something that no one would rather mention or look at, treated like a nuisance shoved under the carpet, make it a part of your company culture, celebrate the benefits that accurate time tracking provides, the insights it gives you in a monthly Show & Tell for example!

Do you have any awesome tips on wrangling your creatives? We’d love to know

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Mallika Goel
Mallika Goel is the communications manager at WorkflowMax, fresh from the agency world. She brings with her four years of experience working with some of New Zealand’s largest brands as well as more boutique ones. She thinks life’s too short to do one thing, so she keeps herself busy pursuing her many interests: an obsessive love of writing/blogging, fitness, travelling and design.

Mallika Goel