There are two reasons to track time in general: track working hours for those who get paid by the hour and track the amount of time spent on specific projects so you can get an idea how different projects and tasks need time.
TRACKING TIME FOR PROGRESS
I guess you have already heard about buzzwords like agile, scrum or lean and so on. It doesn’t matter what type of development or working platform you use now or used to, and everything will come down to this process:
You have a project on which you need to work. You pull up all the resources and knowledge into one place and share it across the whole team so they can learn and use this resource to start and maintain the work. You delegate responsibilities and set milestones and deadlines. You work on the project in sprints and reach the milestones. You track the project through team communication and reporting. You delivered the product or service when all the milestones achieved. There are optional Q&As and testing phases before delivery. You then ship the product or provide the service. After the delivery, you regroup and evaluate the process with feedback on the project.
Structuring your team to get the project done is another story, now we focus only on the project tracking part.
Tracking time to monitor a project's progress is a great thing. There are some useful tools to track time, where projects and tasks can be tracked by the hour spent on them. Those are highly useful, and you can use them to track the length of projects. They can help you to assign and delegate responsibilities and plan out your resources. HubStaff, for example, is one of those tools which can help you to get by time tracking for projects.
TRACKING TIME FOR WORK
Tracking time to get paid doesn’t work. First off, timesheets can be cheated (and will be tricked). Second, tracking time to make sure you are working - it merely kills trust. It just kills motivation because it ruins the very first element of a relationship: trust.
If you are the timekeeper, it means you are tracking how your employees are working on a project. It says you need a tool that makes screenshots – so it can prove the work – and also integrates to your project management tool. If your employee is the timekeeper of its own time, it is all based on self-declaration. They declare how much time they worked on a specific task and that’s it.
I think the best solution is the mix of the two approaches. Your employee has to track the time of their own, and you have to approve that calculation after the report. If you are monitoring their time and making screenshots, it hurts the essential elements of trust. If you have a valid and real team and not just an offshore production group whom you work with, you already trust your employees. That is one of the main reason why you hired them in the first place. Trust can be gained, but it can be lost easily. You have to trust your employees: if they say they worked on a project for X hour, they mean it. Also, most of the distributed teams started as a freelancer becoming an entrepreneur and building a team. You probably already an expert on the project, even though you are not technically doing the legwork to finish it. As an expert you have a pretty clear view of a task in the project and how much time it should take approximately to accomplish it. If your team spends significantly too much time on that task, you should know there’s something wrong. If they spend too much time, but the project doesn’t progress forward, there is something wrong again. Something is not right, not necessarily with the timekeeping but maybe they are stuck and need help. Alternatively, perhaps the timekeeping is wrong, and they overreport their hours while not making any progress. Does it make any difference if you have screenshots of their work? Not really. However, having a screenshot-capable time-tracking tool will send out one message: your leader doesn’t trust you, so he tracks your activity on your computer.
Tracking time also gets increasingly difficult if you have a bigger team. Managing time-tracking results in spending more time to maintain time. If you implement some time-tracking software to your workflows, consider something that can be automated and integrated easily to your project management tool, like HubStaff.
MAKE TIME TRACKING PART OF YOUR COMPANY CULTURE
If you still want to implement time-tracking, even with its challenges, you should make this part of your company culture. It is the only way when you can come out of this as the ‘good guy’ and not as the ‘voyeur.’ Your company culture already has a foundation with transparency and accountability, I hope. Make time-tracking part of this foundation. Share your timesheets with your team publicly. Encourage team members to track their time with incentives. Make sure that time-tracking is public and open to everyone, not just you can track their time, but they can track each others time. Please make it clear that it is for to monitor a project and for better accountability.
This cultural approach will make time-tracking not a pain in the ass but a strategy that they can follow and agree with. It will create a shared responsibility and make time-tracking a case for everyone to adopt.