I recently started a new job where I am paid a regular salary, but must track my hours. I can charge them directly to a contract, or indirectly to discretionary funds.

A lot of my time (especially at the beginning) is spent working on installs and configuration, which can take a long time and require very little direct action on my part, so I will often work on other projects or action items for the same project, rather than twiddle my thumbs for 90 minutes.

It occurs to me that during this parallel work time, I'm essentially working double for whatever contract (or working on two contracts at once). The way I see it, I have several options:

  1. Wait while install steps take place, don't do anything else
  2. Work on another step in the same project, charge once for my time
  3. Work on another step in the same project, charge for time spent concurrently on both
  4. Work on another project, charge time only to the project I'm actively working on
  5. Work on another project, charge my time to both
  6. Work on non-direct-charge items, charge only to the non-direct line item
  7. Work on non-direct-charge items, charge for both line items concurrently

(Yes, I know some of them boil down to essentially the same thing)

I've spoken with my direct supervisor, who's response boils down to "do the right thing". Company policy is pretty clear than as long as what I'm doing is "in line" with my responsibility for a project I can be charging for it. My question is not about what I should do. My question is: is one of these options objectively more ethical than the others? Are there established best practices for this sort of situation?

  • I've spoken with my direct supervisor, who's response boils down to "do the right thing". Was that in response to the general question or did you show them this list? I would find it amazing that they wouldn't just flat out tell you not to do #3 or #7. – BSMP Jun 26 '16 at 3:31
  • What are "non-direct-charge items"? – Lilienthal Jun 26 '16 at 10:04
  • @Lilienthal non-direct items are just how I account for time not spent working on a specific project, or doing work that needs to be done, but isn't directly billable to any single project. – agentroadkill Jun 26 '16 at 12:06
  • And by "charge" you mean you'd book your time to those codes in your actual employer's time tracking system? If so, consider editing that into your question. – Lilienthal Jun 26 '16 at 12:10
  • 3
    This question paints the perfect picture of why I ran almost all of my consultant mode work in years gone by on a fixed price basis. I priced my work and deliverables so they gave good value to my customers. If I took on tasks that were easy because of having a lot of specific experience I still priced the deliverables according to value as opposed to time spent. In similar manner it was often necessary to work on things in multiplex manner but there was never need to squabble or figure out hours as everything was a given price. Incidentally no employees. I sold what I knew I could deliver. – Michael Karas Jun 27 '16 at 5:51

No you are not working double. You have maybe 10 minutes of work over 90 minutes. If you are able to do other work in the middle of those few minutes at a time then you are doing that work not the install. The install is happening with or with out you. So if you can do another task actively bill for that task and only bill the time working.

On the other hand if you have an install that you can not really do that with you can still bill 90 minutes that it takes because it is work that needs to be done and it takes as long as it takes. Other times there just is not productive work to be done in the down time. Some times there is an opportunity to save some time some times there is not.

There was a time when i was doing this that I would get my installs started and running overnight they took 3-4 hours to load up back then. Then when i came in the next morning I would log and and let the installs finish while I went and checked email, got coffee etc, then an hour or so later go finish the configuration of the specific workstations which took 10 min each. So during this time in the 30-40 min before I left for the day I would start 5 machines loading. So in about 2 hours of work I would perform ~20 hours of worth of tasks. But that was also after I had been doing it for several years. The first few times I loaded a computer I had to baby sit the entire process. After a while you learn when you can let the process run itself and go do other things. That is a benefit of having someone both skilled and experienced, you can get those efficiencies.

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  • If you're dealing with installing Windows, look for something called "Slipstream". It'll automate the entire install, and you pop in a disc and you walk back with a fully installed OS. If you need to change the software key, do it afterwards and it'll only take 5-10 minutes.| Even better, if they're the exact same install, use clones and do a dump via Linux dd or whatever cloning software you use. dd can even clone multiple drives simultaneously (I've done 8 at a time), so you'll drastically increase efficiency after that initial setup. – Nelson Jun 27 '16 at 1:30
  • @Nelson there are lots of ways to do that now... back then not so much. I have happily moved along from those types of roles but thank you – IDrinkandIKnowThings Jun 27 '16 at 14:30

Ethical questions of this nature usually have a very easy answer: if you don't want your client to learn of what you're doing and/or won't be able to explain what you did in a satisfactory manner if (or when) he finds out, that's a pretty big sign that you shouldn't be doing it.

If you're working on things that have significant downtime or idle time between actions, how you handle or bill that depends on the type of work you're doing, the contract with the client (or your employer) and what other work you have available. If you need to do X before you can proceed with Y or Z, then the downtime involved in setting up X is billable. If you can start on Y or Z then you should do that instead, even if you won't be as efficient without X.

If you can work on A, B or C for another client while X is running, then that's something I would recommend doing. It allows you to do more work in less time, will give you more breathing room in the planning/budget for X and may result in you delivering a project ahead of schedule or under budget. That's a good thing, even for independent contractors who "lose" a few hours worth of billable time.

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Simple. If you work eight hours then you bill eight hours. You divide the billing between the different tasks as fair as you can. Let's say some install takes two hours, but you could do the same install for four clients in two hours total. If you have four clients, good for them, you bill 30 minutes each. If you have only one client and can't do anything else during that time (for example locked in a server room), tough luck for the client, you bill two hours each.

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This is a common issue. Some people do actually just sit through the installs twiddling their thumbs. I'm not one of them.

This is my way of dealing with it, I'm unsure if others are the same, but I've never had a complaint.

If possible I multi-task work for the same client and bill that time. Otherwise I'll multi task for another client and bill them both. Sometimes I'll be building 4 or five machines for different clients simultaneously, I'll bill them all. I don't see any ethical dilemma with it.

So for example I might build 5 machines in an hour and a half, complete with updates, Office software, antivirus etc,. Really it should take me an hour to build one if I just did that, so I'll charge 5 clients an hour each. More money for me, but I did do the job professionally at the cost they would have got it at if that's all I had to do that day.

Sometimes a client would need 4 machines built and end up with a bill for an hour and a half instead of 4 hours.

Being efficient pays off for a company as well, so long as you're not padding hours. In fact I'd give people a bit of a break if I got too embarrassed about how much I was making. Sometimes I'd do more work for a client and just chuck it under that hour as well, so they actually come out ahead on occasion, and they never come out behind.

It's like a shop that charges $50 to scan a drive for virus's or something. It's unlikely that someone is sitting there watching it the whole time and doing nothing else, but it's still $50 for the job.

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  • 2
    Sometimes it cuts the other way too, so if an install normally takes 1.5 hours, but something you did makes it go 2-3x longer, you don't go and over-charge the guy. – Nelson Jun 27 '16 at 1:51
  • Yep, you're right, pay for your own mistakes – Kilisi Jun 27 '16 at 4:13
  • This is good if you have flat rate pricing, but if you are paid hourly for the work you do and the client is picking up the tab if it goes sideways and takes 10 hours instead of 2, then they should also get the benefit of your being able to operate more efficiently. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Jun 27 '16 at 14:33
  • They do get the benefit, as I stated in the answer I'll multi-task their work if possible, so they'll get one bill for several jobs which would take longer if done seperately. – Kilisi Jun 28 '16 at 1:39

Let's make this a non-issue. Use a time tracking system that lets you specify "I now start working on" (switching current task). In that case you automatically have no issues.

  • Switch task to Client X/Installation
  • Prepare and start you installs
  • Switch task to Client Y/Programming
  • Installs are ready; Switch task to Client X/Installation
  • Finish what you need to do for Client X
  • Switch task to Client Y/Programming

You will have to decide on a minimum time frame where you don't switch, if you know the next task is going to take less than that - it's not much use wasting your time booking task fragments of a few minutes. I use something like 5 minutes. These mini-fragments will cancel out across clients.

If this software is well configured (like a tray icon application running), switching tasks can be done with a few clicks. You can even pick up a phone with one hand and while establishing who you are speaking to and what for, switch tasks with the other hand.

The software will count everything up, you have perfect reports with no time unaccounted for, overbilled or double dipped.

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This is kind of a ridiculous premise honestly. If you are blocked for 90 minutes it's your problem to otherwise be productive. You could also type only with your left hand and whenever you accidentally use your right hand you must wait 60 minutes. Think of all the money you will make with all that extra time you are charging! If you see no problem with this, then you should probably charge more in the first place. If you do, then, well, don't provide your clients poor service.

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