Timesheets and the Internet of Things

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The Internet of Things is creeping closer, or so we’re told.

The idea reminds me of a cartoon in one of the Molesworth books, that satirise and celebrate the awfulness of British boarding school life in the 1950s and 1960s.

Nearer and nearer crept the ghastly THING.

thing

School certainly contained its horrors. Unimaginably ghastly THINGS might creep up on us in the classroom, the boot-room, or the tuck shop, or lurk on the playing-fields, or in the subterranean corridors where we spent our lives queuing for a spoonful of cough mixture. It might be the headmaster’s dog, Spongebag, or Matron, or even an errant dumpling or prune.

dog

(On one occasion at Molesworth’s St Custard’s the prunes (a staple component of school food at the time) revolted.)

prunes

But the Internet of Things holds no such horrors. We’re encouraged to welcome the possibility that everything we own will be connected to the internet and to us. We’ll be able to control our homes remotely, turning the heating up or down, and letting the plumber in, or the postman. We’ll water the plants, feed the cat, and even empty the cat tray, from the other side of the world. We’ll tell our driverless car to come and get us.We’ll even be able to watch our house being burgled through the webcams we’ve installed in every room. We’ll be able to remonstrate with them as they do their nasty work.

Control will be complete, and we’ll spend even more time crouched over our PCs or Macs, controlling THINGS. No more getting up to switch a light off, no more wands to wave and click at the TV, the Skybox or to fire up the microwave. Everything will be at the click of a mouse. The browser will be omniscient and omnipotent.

Initially these THINGS, I suppose, will just do what we tell them. But perhaps in time they’ll become autonomous, able to answer back, and converse. The fridge and the cooker will together conspire to cook our dinner, optimising the leftovers into a stylish, healthy and eco-friendly rissole. And then they’ll switch off our pacemakers if we’re insufficiently appreciative. Our bodies, too, will be made of THINGS all wired up and controlled by other THINGS.

But, as it happens, the Internet of Things will solve a challenge we’ve always faced with timesheets. For the last ten years, when presenting and extolling the virtues of our professional services software, time@work, I’ve been asked repeatedly how we can make people submit their timesheets on time. Late timesheets are the bane of every service director’s life.

Submit me, or else (but, sadly, something our system doesn’t do).

timesheet fist

I would tell them about our Workflow Status reporting tool that can produce a list of overdue timesheets for every manager in the company. I would talk about the reminder emails that can be sent as often as required, both to employees who are late with submission and to managers who are late with authorisation.

‘But I can’t actually MAKE people do things,’ I usually say.

‘OK, but can’t you prevent employees from doing other things until they’ve submitted their timesheets?’

Yes, I say, we can prevent submission of expense forms, and so on, until all outstanding timesheets have been submitted, but we can’t interfere with Word or Excel or Google or Facebook to disable an employee’s PC or Mac. Microsoft and Apple won’t let us. Nor can we deliver electric shocks, however much they’re deserved.

Well, the Internet of Things is creeping closer, and times are changing. One of our latest customers, ConnecTec, makers of the devices, and developers of the software, that render THINGS animate (at least in the Internet of Things sense) has asked us to link our timesheet reminder module to their employees’ domestic devices. (They encourage their employees to link their devices to the internet for free, but only in return for indemnity from the consequences.)

internet of things

So, just as you can link a scanner and a barcode reader to our expense management system, we can now link time@work to any compliant domestic device using a standard communications protocol.

ConnecTec are adopting a somewhat ruthless policy on overdue timesheets:

  • One day: set the fridge to defrost.
  • Two days: disable the TV and other entertainment devices.
  • Three days: activate the burglar alarm every hour from three o’clock in the morning.
  • Four days: disable the garage door.
  • Five days: electrocute the domestic pets.
  • Six days: shut the whole house down and lock everyone out.
  • A week: Activate a black hole and consume everything in the vicinity.

If you’re interested in putting time@work at the heart of the Internet of Things, contact your support desk.

But be warned!

exploding house

Bond, where is that Timesheet?!

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I saw Spectre last night. It was utterly awesome, as I’d expected. Indeed, the Bond series goes from strength to strength. Perhaps it lacked the emotional range of Skyfall, and in particular, those moments of poignancy with which the film ended, but Spectre, just like its predecessors, is brim full of realistic and tasty ingredients – suspense, violence, innate evil, fast cars, gadgets, elegance, intimacy, torture and a soupcon of British humour. Director Sam Mendes lovingly recreates the old clichés and conventions, but despite all that I kept sensing that something hugely important was missing. I don’t mean Judi Dench. I miss her as M, of course, and I cried when M died, but Ralph Fiennes is a more than adequate replacement. And Ben Whishaw is superb as Q, this time a little more involved in the action. No, what I missed was timesheets and expenses.

I was so excited by the product placements in Skyfall that I actually wrote to the producer, Barbara Broccoli, to suggest that timesheets and expense forms might add some corporate plausibility to the image of MI6. After all, MPs at the House of Commons use our software, so why shouldn’t secret agents and their masters? Licensed to kill they may be, but surely they must account fully for each working day, and record their quite extravagant expenses properly if they’re expecting to be reimbursed.

I wrote to suggest three placement points and some clever and snappy dialogue to make them seem natural.

==

Memo to Barbara Broccoli, Producer, James Bond films:

Re:         Placement opportunities for systems@work in the next Bond film

Dear Barbara,

I have long admired the Bond franchise’s approach to product placement. Apart from lending credibility to the script at vital moments, they add further to the excitement (the audience wondering when, where, and how, the familiar products will make their ritualistic appearances). I understand that you make generous payments to the likes of Aston Martin, Sony and Omega to use and show their products. I can better that. I am prepared to let you show our systems and use our logos free of charge.

I see three opportunities for placement points in the forthcoming production where we can do something plausible and useful with timesheets and expenses:

  1. Near the beginning, when Q is doing his usual stuff with gadgets,
  2. Later, at an elegant location, when Bond is buying a Martini at a hotel bar, and
  3. Most appropriately, during the debriefing session at the end – M, Q, the Home Secretary, Moneypenny and Bond, all joshing on the subject of timesheets and expenses.

Moreover, I’ve taken the trouble to offer you, at no extra cost, some snappy dialogue designed to promote the benefits of timesheets and expenses without disturbing the excitement and momentum of the film.

==

Gadget Scene

(Q and Bond)

Bond     What’s my mobile in this one, Q? Any chance I’ll get an iPhone?

Q:          It’s still a Sony, I’m afraid, 007. Apple is too damn expensive.

Bond:    Apps?

Q:          Explodes. Shoots. Plays background music. Bowls a good leg break. Everything you need, 007.

Bond:    Very useful, Q, but what about expenses?

(Q angles the phone towards the camera so that we can see the screen.)

Q:         Yes, 007, we thought of that. No excuses for late submission this time. The systems@work App lets you do your expenses both offline and online. Snap your receipts with the inbuilt camera and forget about the paperwork. Upload them at your leisure, if you get any, but only (chuckles) if they’re MI6-compliant. No pigeon houses or moat cleaning at MI6, 007.

General amazement ensues. Film continues.

Scene in Hotel Bar, Ritz or Mandarin preferred.

(Bond and slightly surly bartender.)

(After the usual dialogue that ends with ‘Shaken not stirred’, or, more recently, ‘I really don’t give a damn!’)

Bond:                 Bartender, you forgot to give me a receipt.

(Bartender resentfully prints a receipt and hands it to Bond, with noticeable curl of lip. He watches with surprise and then admiration as Bond uses his mobile device to photograph the receipt. We catch another glimpse of the time@work App and logo.)

Bartender:         Wow, that’s utterly awesome.

Bond:                  Yes, it’s available from Version 4.9 of systems@work’s timesheet and expense software. I can upload the image and get paid before the film’s even over.

(Action resumes after brief pause for appreciation.)

 

Debriefing scene

(M, Q, Bond, Home Secretary, Moneypenny)

Home Secretary:             Well done, 007. Good show.

M:                                      Don’t let it go to your head, 007. You’ve forgotten something of very great importance to us.

Moneypenny:                  Is it my box of Milk Tray?

M:                                      Don’t be silly, Moneypenny. You’ve got the genre wrong again.

(And then, mimicking Edith Evans’ tone as she addresses Miss Prism in the 1952 film version of Oscar Wilde’s  The Importance of Being Earnest. )

M:                                      007, where is that timesheet? Where is that expense form?

Q:                                       I warned you, 007. No excuses this time. I even installed the systems@work App on your mobile. You can use it anywhere, offline or online. Let me show you.

(Q accidentally shows us the logo and splash screen again.)

Bond:                                Back in your train spotter’s box, Q! You’re sounding like a salesman. I’m not stupid. I understood you the first time, when you showed me the App near the start of the film. M, you think I don’t take compliance seriously? Where would the Service be without compliance? I gave all my receipts to Moneypenny yesterday. And in any case, you both know I can’t use my phone. I used it to kill a sneering oligarch, and I’m waiting for a replacement. Actually, whilst we’re on the subject, can I get an iPhone this time?

M:                                      Barbara, actually, can we all have iPhones in the next film?

Moneypenny:                  He’s right, M.  Yes, 007, I’m your Proxy, and I’ve submitted your expenses and timesheet for you. But you’ve still got to confirm them in the system.

Q:                                       Ah, yes, we configured it that way deliberately, to make life easier for our so-called indispensable agents. You can, I understand, omit the confirmation stage.

Home Secretary:             Yes, it’s a useful feature. In the House of Commons we do all our own expenses now, ever since that tiny spot of bother a few years ago. We use expense@work, a sister product to time@work, another highly configurable software package from the software author systems@work. It’s easy to use and almost idiot proof (ha, ha, ha, it has to be, if I’m to use it!). Why should you have special license, 007?

(Bond reaches for Moneypenny’s PC, swivels the screen with a violent gesture and a look that suggests at once both defiance and compliance (Mr Craig is a master of this kind of look)).

Bond:                                Let me login and confirm them whilst there’s still time.

(We see Bond confirming his timesheet (see below for suggested content) and then, if he’s quick enough, his expenses, too. Music starts and film ends.)

==

Barbara, I’d be happy to offer a barter deal if you feel a large payment isn’t possible. I feel sure that timesheets and expenses could be of great benefit to your production staff and cast during the making of the next Bond film, and, if it would help, we can throw in free training for the stars.

With best wishes,

Adam Bager – Chairman, systems@work

==

Sadly, I never got a reply from Barbara, but I’ll write again for the next film. With good racy dialogue, such as the above, time@work could seem just as alluring and essential as an Aston Martin, a Sony mobile or an Omega watch.

Bond’s Busy Week

Timesheet 007

Fragile and Vulnerable, but Marvellous When it Works

If there’s something worrying me when I go to bed, I dream that I’ve got to play an oboe concerto. The score is missing, or I haven’t a good reed, or the piece is far too difficult. I wake up relieved, and only a tiny bit regretful that I am not a professional musician. Such were my dreams on Monday night.

But the task on Tuesday morning was nevertheless a performance. I must wake at 3.30 am to present time@work, our timesheet software, to a roomful of lawyers in Singapore. I am in Sofia, six hours behind them.

vulnerable

I’ve sent out the Webex invitation earlier. Webex is a software tool that enables you to share your screen with people all over the world. My partners in business, Ramesh and Charles from Kuala Lumpur, are in the room in Singapore and they’ll project my PC via their PC and a projector, onto a screen. We’ll talk through Skype, and they’ll pass an iPad around the room so that people can ask me questions. I will never know what they look like, or if they are smiling or frowning, or even listening.

This is fabulous technology. Cheaper than flying to Singapore and back.

So, I ‘m awake at 3.30 in a hotel in Sofia. Quick shower, and then down to the lobby, where I’m told the WiFi network is more reliable. It’s dark, but the receptionist is standing behind reception (he has no chair, poor man, so I suppose sleeps at his post like a horse, standing up). He works 8 am to 8 pm, he tells me, two days on, two days off. He is nevertheless cheerful.

Yes, he can make me a cup of tea. This is marvellous news. Without tea, I am useless.

The security guard is sleeping on the sofa in the Lobby Bar, so I move to another dark corner from where Singapore won’t hear Balkan snoring and where my declamatory tones won’t wake the guard.

Power plugged in. Earphones on. I open my Inbox l to discover an email from late last night that says the potential client has changed the agenda and wants to see a few more things that I haven’t yet prepared. Alarming, but manageable.

35 minutes to go, so I do some quick changes to the system, amend my PowerPoint presentation (don’t worry, I only do five slides), and make sure the system is still working.

10 minutes to go, and I suddenly realise that I’m not connected to the internet. The icon says I’m connected but I’m actually not. I can’t start the Webex meeting so something must be wrong. I do the usual troubleshooting to no avail.

9 minutes to go. I force a restart on the PC. But that doesn’t help.

7 minutes to go. There’s no one at reception now, so I decide to try to connect from my room, where clearly, at some point in the night, the connection was working.

5 minutes to go. In my room it doesn’t work either.

3 minutes to go. Back in reception. The cheerful receptionist looks dubious, but agrees to restart the router.

2 minutes to go and finally it’s all working.

Ramesh has been Skyping frantically, ‘Where are you?’ thinking, perhaps, that I have overslept.

Now I am calm. ‘I am Mrs de Winter now,’ I say to myself quietly.

And then I’m on air.

‘Good morning, Singapore!’

Of course, I lost my changes to the PowerPoint presentation when I forced a restart, but it doesn’t matter and the presentation goes well. No one knows anything was ever wrong.

There are so many links in this wonderful technological chain. It is marvellous when it works, but oh, so vulnerable.

Who would have thought it?

In the 1980s when I was a programmer and consultant at Hoskyns in London I was invariably the last to fill in my weekly timesheet. I hated timesheets. They were an unreasonable intrusion. How I spent my time, I felt, was no one’s business but my own, as long as I was doing a good job.

Now, thirty years later, I’m the designer of a timesheet system and I go around the world telling everyone how important timesheets are. Who would have thought it?

So many of our youthful enthusiasms and prejudices seem unreasonable as we age. Platform heels, cheese-cloth shirts, transcendental meditation, Chianti flasks with candles, the music of John Cage, Tony Blair, all seem inexplicable enthusiasms now. How odd It seems that I thought it was no business of my employer to know how I spent my working time.

Platform Shoe

But getting consultants to fill in their timesheets is just the first battle of many if you’re managing a professional services firm. Getting your consultants to tell the truth is the second and larger battle. These are some of the voiced and unvoiced reasons why consultants don’t record time accurately:

  • ‘I always put eight hours. It’s the easiest thing to do.’
  • ‘I didn’t feel I could charge the client. I don’t think the work I did was really worth what he’d have to pay.’
  • ‘I don’t want my boss to see that it took me so long.”
  • ‘I never charge more than a whole day, even if I work extra hours.’
  • ‘It’s a fixed price project and there aren’t any hours left.’
  • ‘I don’t like to charge for time I spend on research. The client expects me to know what I’m talking about.
  • ‘It was only a few minutes work. Not worth recording, surely.’
  • ‘It’s an internal project. No one minds how many hours I record against it.’
  • ‘I made a little mistake on the project. It really didn’t take me long to put it right.’
  • ‘I wanted to make it really perfect, so I spent some of my own time on it.’
  • ‘I know we need more work of this kind, and we won’t get it if we’re completely honest about how long it takes.’
  • ‘I won’t get my bonus if I don’t hit 35 chargeable hours a week.’
  • ‘This client doesn’t care how much we charge. The other one does. So I put all my time on the first one.’
  • ‘The work was useful for two of my clients, so why not record it twice. We can charge them both.’
  • ‘I can’t record time correctly because the law doesn’t allow me to work overtime.’

You can penalise staff who don’t submit their timesheets by reducing their bonuses or applying some other harsh measure. Making sure they tell the truth is a matter of explanation and encouragement.

But without knowing how long tasks take you’ll never know if you are charging too much or too little for the work you do, and you’ll never know if you’re staff are working too hard or just idling their time away.

So, try to convince your staff that timesheets must be done on time and must be truthful. And if there’s a young man in platform heels and a cheese-cloth shirt listening to some weird modern music, and scowling, tell him to grow up!