Using time registration in an academic environment

„Your most valuable resource is time – that is true even today.“ It was one of the days I attended a lecture on complexity theory held by Prof. Lengauer, and he reminded his audience of how important it was to use our time as students (and after graduation) wisely. Of course, wisely meant that we should spend time on attending his lecture, reading the textbook, solving exercises. Or we should drop the lecture, choose another course and do not spend time on half-heartedly following his course.

I have always tracked start and end times for work and have scribbled a summary of work done for every employment contract running for more than a few months. It was at my latest job in industry that I started tracking time with higher accuracy. I worked for a company that developed and sold time registration equipment and software. As such, you should eat your own dog food, so time registration terminals were installed all over the company premises, and every employee was equipped with his/her own RFID tag. The last time I had used time registration systems (with magnetic stripe cards) was in the mid-1990s when I had worked for a state agency. I got quickly used to the system: you register for work when you arrive by holding your tag in front of the terminal until it signals your registration with a beep. You register beginning and end of breaks, you register when you leave the premises for a business trip or at the end of your working day. Registration itself is the simple part.

Evaluation is the hard part. I can tell you, I worked as a maintenance programmer on a time registration application that had grown by adding features for almost two decades. It is amazing what customers want to do with a seemingly simple sequence of present/absent events. You can apply roundings, cap maximum times per period, pay premiums for certain periods, have people work in shifts with different schedules every day, and then apply even more parameters to your calculations. What about premiums paid to retail clerks at Saturdays before Christmas if they worked at least x hours, left work not too early in the afternoon and only if they worked for more than one Saturday in December, but not for the Saturday when they registered most hours? Before embarking on a refactoring project for that application I counted all the parameters influencing the evaluation of time registrations for a single employee in a month. There were hundreds of parameters. Not every parameter was relevant all the time, but for every parameter there had at least once existed a paying customer with a special need.

My current needs are simple.

My first need is to know how I spend my time on research, teaching, and administration. My employer expects me to spend about 10% on administrative tasks, and divide the remaining time equally between research and teaching. Advice that senior faculty gives is to spend twice as much on research as on teaching and twice as much on teaching as on administration. I am sure I read it in Gunnar Hartvigsen’s Forskerhåndboken (The Researcher’s manual), even though I do not have the reference at hand. Actually, the advice was that evaluation committees for professorships value research twice as much as teaching and value teaching twice as much as administration. So, unless I am more efficient at either of these activities, I should stick with making time proportionately, i.e. 60:30:10.

My second need is to compare my planned use of time with my actual use of time. I submitted a work plan for 2011, and I want to know at the end of that year (and in between) how much time I have used on specific goals, whether I was faster or slower than expected, whether I have time left to spend on exciting new projects, and what to plan differently when revising ambitions for my new work plan for 2012.

A third need will arise once I attract external funding. We have to report time spent on externally funded projects for accounting purposes of the department.

It is hard to guess how much time you used on each project or type of work, if you do not track it regularly. Tracking time itself is a task that should require only short time. In my previous job I evaluated a couple of programs that can help tracking your time. The one that satisfied my accounting needs and that I found easiest to use was TimePanic. You define your own list of projects and work types and can switch between tasks with a single click of your mouse – very easy to do when most of your work takes place at a computer. The ease of use convinced several of my former colleagues to use it to track their own time. It even became our interim solution for two years, before it was superseded by an integrated project planning and accounting tool.

At the moment I use only three work types and no projects; I will start using projects in 2011. During my first two months at HiG I spent ca. 75% on research, 15% on teaching, and 10% on administrative tasks. It is quite rough, proposal writing and industry contacts, for instance, are logged as research. Nevertheless, I seem to be able to restrict administrative tasks to my target of 10%, and I seem to be using more time on teaching preparation and Bachelor thesis topic marketing than I should, given that I do not have formal teaching assignments for the current semester.

About Author: Hanno Langweg

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