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Our toxic relationship with non-billable time

Written 23 March, 2018, 2 minutes to read

In business, making good use of time is crucial to staying profitable. But the focus on our bottom line often leads to a crude valuation where billable time is the only time well spent. It feeds a toxic attitude that treats non-billable time as weakness or wastage, rather than being an essential investment in long-term profitability.

The stigma of non-billable time

“Of course our company doesn’t actually think like that,” you say. But take a look at how time is viewed at an operational level. Do employees actively request training courses? Is there a general sense that you can spend “too long” on internal projects? Do people get anxious when they haven’t received client work for a few days?

In truth, a lot of us have a toxic relationship with non-billable time, whether we’re openly aware of it or not. Logging non-billable hours frequently makes us worry about future career progression or job stability. We feel it might be used against us to show we aren’t valuable or don’t have the right approach. In companies where commissions are attached to profitable performance, the pressure is even greater.

The result? We develop an unspoken fear of non-billable work. We look for anything to do, whether it’s useful or not, just to be seen to be doing something tied to profit. We fluff timesheets to overstate billable hours, but it only serves to harm client relationships and repeat business. We fall into a trap of thinking time is money, rather than value.

Learning from non-billable time

In truth, every healthy business needs to spend time on non-billable tasks in order to develop, grow and stay relevant in a quickly changing marketplace.

While knowing your balance between billable and non-billable time is crucial, you shouldn’t judge non-billable time as inherently unprofitable. Tracking non-billable time can identify inefficient processes and workflows, like showing which non-billables are just the result of antiquated admin you can easily automate, and where you can make operations leaner.

But it can also highlight the limits you place on your own development. It helps you work out if you provide enough space for staff training, whether you need to spend more time pitching for new business, and whether people feel they can spend time sharing knowledge, researching and developing ideas.

We need to fundamentally shift the view that sees “non-billable” as “negative expense”. Where it enables employee development, business growth and innovation, non-billable time is just as valuable as billable time. Enrichment and profitability cannot be measured by immediate cash flow alone.

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