For Digital Teams, It's About Time

Written by Nate Wood - 18 Jun 2019

In the first of our blogs to support the launch of our whitepaper, 'A guide to in-housing and creating a digital centre of excellence', we've got the view of Nate Wood, a strategy director here at Fresh Egg, about time for digital teams.

In this post, Nate considers the following:

  • Why ignoring time usage within a team is dangerous
  • Doing the right work
  • Understanding where time is spent
  • Team efficiency
  • How digital team's approach work

It’s about time

“Time is on my side,” sang the Rolling Stones. However, ask any digital marketing team and this is not their theme tune. Digital moves fast, often pushing changes in customer behaviour and expectations equally as quickly. Keeping ahead of changes in digital while maintaining baseline operations is not easy.

As a digital strategy director, I spend a lot of time speaking to in-house digital teams helping them to look forward and evolve their marketing. We analyse, we identify opportunities, we strategise, we plan. Do you know what the number one response is as to why things haven’t been completed when I revisit those teams? That’s right: “I didn’t have the time”.

Time is a currency. It needs to be spent wisely. One might argue that time is as precious to a marketing team as money. How your team spends its time can be as instrumental to good performance as how it spends its marketing budget. Every business has a financial accounting process to add up the pounds and pennies, ensuring robust application of funds to deliver against objectives. Very few have any sort of time accounting process to ensure that time is being spent properly.

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Time culture

Ignoring time usage within a team is dangerous. There is a finite amount of working time available in any team. This can stretch during busy periods, but generally running a team at high workloads over a long period of time is a recipe for disaster. Burnout, morale decline, drops in productivity and motivation all occur when you push a team to work long hours over a long period. 

The time culture within a business is often overlooked but has a heavy impact on staff morale and motivation. “Work/life balance” has become a key factor in the recruitment process for both employers and candidates. Businesses are under pressure to be more mindful of employee mental health, with those actively protecting the wellbeing of their staff being seen as far more favourable employers.

It’s still surprising how many businesses equate time spent at a desk to productivity and as an indicator of working hard. Employees pick up on this, filling their time with any work rather than necessarily focusing on the right work.

There is still very much a culture of admiration for those that put in the long hours, regardless of whether those hours generate true business value. Working longer hours is seen as being more committed, sacrificing one’s own time for the benefit of the business. The fact is, in the modern age of digital marketing this simply isn’t true anymore.

It is imperative that senior management review the time culture of their business. An employee sitting at a desk for a long period of time does not necessarily mean they are effective, impactful and generating value. Vice versa, an employee sticking to their contracted hours, taking breaks and enjoying conversation does not necessarily mean they are uncommitted, unproductive or lazy.

Doing the right work

Within any team workload there are layers of work. Different priority tasks, different frequencies, different activities – they combine to produce layers. Some layers are necessary, some layers are absolutely not.

Often, I find that teams are doing a lot of work. They’re hyper busy and there’s not a spare second in the day. On deeper inspection, there is usually a layer of work for which a substantial amount of time is spent that has relatively little value. There’s lots of work being done but it’s not all the right work.

The value of work is subjective and can change over time. The value of work is also relative to the skillset of the people doing that work as well as being relative to the work that is not being completed. For example, a senior digital marketing manager spending three hours a week producing internal digital performance reports that no one else really reads is the wrong work, especially if that time is spent at the detriment of producing strong strategies and tactical plans to push performance forward. Quite often, it’s the higher level elements such as deeper performance analysis, opportunity identification, strategy/planning and research into new practices to keep the team sophisticated that are the first elements of work to drop by the wayside.

Analysing tasks to identify the work that needs to be done and those people that should be doing it is a good first step to getting more from the team. Setting the right level tasks for the right level staff makes operational sense and financial sense. It’s not cost effective for a person earning senior wages to be spending their time on junior level work.

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Time accounting

When the stock answer to not completing important items is “I don’t have the time”, the first thing to do is understand where time is spent. In-house teams rarely employ timesheets, which is a shame because timesheets will provide great insight into how time is spent. Analysing time usage can show how different types of work are completed and will uncover the time drains that are holding a team back.

The thing about timesheets, though, is that no one likes having to do them. This attitude to timesheets often arises from a lack of understanding of their purpose and how the information will be used. They are often suspected of being a snooping device that should be feared. This is especially true in a business with an immature time culture. The use of timesheets needs to be clearly positioned with the team.

Timesheets are:

  • A means to understand where time is being spent in the team.
  • A way to uncover time drains that need to be addressed with improved process, technology or training.
  • Helpful in building the business case for increased team resource with documented information showing the range of work and resource requirements.

Time sheets are not:

  • A witch-hunting tool to document where staff might be wasting time or be working at less than 100% efficiency.

Timesheets only work when completed honestly. That honesty only happens when the need for their use is properly explained to staff.

To get you started, download our timesheet template and categorise your work. Don’t be too granular, but also don’t be too top level. Enough detail to understand the differences in common tasks. Then review the time spent against each task category at the end of the month. If you use the same categories as much as possible across the team then you’ll be able to compare workloads and find common time sinks that need to be addressed.

Timesheeting should help to free up time that can be spent accomplishing those tasks that need doing but for which there seems to be no time. Often, it’s these tasks that can push performance forward.

Time efficiency

How efficient should your staff be? 100%? Well, if we define time efficiency as the proportion of time doing constructive work then you really need to have an idea of the type of work that is being done as well as the amount of time being applied. You’ll also need to define what constructive is! To assess efficiency you need to complete timesheets. You must analyse time usage.

Here’s a spoiler up front, though: your team will never be 100% efficient. Unless you’re looking to run a Victorian factory your team will need to do things like communicate with each other to build a team camaraderie, take bathroom breaks, plan and strategise, keep their knowledge fresh by reading industry resources or undertaking training, or report and attend meetings internally. There’s a lot to do outside of the core work that keeps the team functional and makes working within it an enjoyable, if not enviable activity.

Alongside the use of timesheets a general review of your operational processes may identify areas of inefficiency. Do you chase your tails because you aren’t using a task management tool like Trello? Is communication inefficient because tools like Slack aren’t being used to speed this up? Do you have other tech issues that generally slow your team down? Try to capture these time drains in the time sheet exercise as well as with a separate review and address them head on.

Team motivation

The last element to consider is how the team approach work. When a team feels busy they have a tendency to just get their heads down and do things without analysing what they are doing and why. This can lead to a bit of a hamster wheel scenario where the team can never really get ahead of themselves to plan or analyse their way out of the grind. In this scenario there’s no option other than to break the cycle artificially.

It is also commonplace for the higher-level items of work to require more from the team. Strategising and planning, in particular, can push people out of their comfort zones. There is a tendency for busy teams to default back into those comfort zones, which is often the time-consuming grind of relatively low level, easy work.

To get the team working at a higher level it might be necessary to provide a provision for this low-level work or remove it completely. Motivating and encouraging your staff to want to work outside their comfort zones with regular coaching, guidance and support can also help this shift in focus.

Time management is never easy and everyone at all levels of a business probably has layers of work they should be delegating or removing from their workload somehow. Developing the right culture and accounting process for time is a good first step, though; removing the barriers that keep most people from operating to the very best of their ability.

If you can relate to the time isues I've written about and want to speak to me or another of the Fresh Egg team about help with day-to-day management of time with the neverending list of digital marketing tasks that in-house digital teams face, then please contact us today or call us on 01903 285900.