Musing published March 2010.


Musings Index

Estimating Corporate Man-hours and the Place of Emails

In case you don't know, TenStep, Inc. distributes a regular Email newsletter to subscribers describing the latest TenStep activities. As well, newsletter author/editor Tom Mochal, who also happens to be president of TenStep, typically provides helpful tips about running a project. Some months back, the subject of the tip was Estimating Productive Hours per Day with a view to developing a project budget. In any organizational setting, especially a corporate setting, the question arises today as to how do you account for time spent on Email correspondence. If the only time tracking is in days, as occurs in many organizations, then the issue can be viewed as one of productive efficiency. With the advent of Apple's new iPad™, and the common distraction of so-called multi tasking,[1] the impact can be even more dramatic.

Tom's original text ran as follows:[2]

"Estimating Productive Hours per Day

When estimating effort hours, duration and cost, you must start off with an estimate of effort hours. Without an idea of the effort hours, you cannot accurately estimate duration or cost.

One of the key factors in converting effort hours into duration is to define how many productive hours of work you can expect in a typical workday. For example, if you have an activity that you estimate will take forty effort hours; it is unlikely that it can be completed in five eight-hour calendar days. No one is 100% productive. Without taking this into account, it is likely that you will hit your estimates for effort hours, but you will exceed your duration estimates. You need a "reality factor" to convert the estimated effort hours to estimated duration. You need to determine the number of productive hours per day a person is actually going to work.

A productivity factor takes into account the amount of time a typical person will actually work in a day. This productivity factor takes into account things like social interaction during the day, going to the bathroom and traveling to meetings. It also takes into account people that need a little time to get going in the morning, as well as people that start to fade in the late afternoon. You could try to come up with the number of productive hours per day for each person on the team, but it would be very tedious, if not impossible. A generally accepted rule-of-thumb for average productive hours per day is 6.5, based on an eight-hour day. This does not mean that in any one day a person may not be productive for the full eight hours. However, it does represent a person's productive hours per day over time.

Share with the team the scheduling assumptions that you are making and your expectations. They must take the responsibility to tell you if outside influences are making it difficult for them to spend the allotted time on the project. That will give you the input you need to change their work responsibilities or else change their availability and productivity factors.

When you have contract resources, you should also take a productivity factor into account. Even though these resources are contractors, they will still experience many of the factors that lead to a less than 100% productivity factor. For instance, they are still going to socialize a little and they still need to go to the bathroom. However, you do not expect that contract people will have the same level of non-productive time as employees. A good rule of thumb for a contract resource is 7 to 7.25 productive hours per day. This factor recognizes that the contract resources are not robots and they will not be 100% productive every day. Of course, you still need to pay them for eight hours per day. However, for the purpose of your schedule, you should factor in the productivity factor as well.

Let's look at an example. Let's say you have an activity that is estimated to take 80 hours of effort. If an employee is applied full time, it may take him or her a little over twelve days (80 / 6.5 productive hours per day) to complete the work. If a contract resource is allocated full time to this same activity, the activity duration would be eleven days (80 / 7.25 productive hours per day)."

This kind of information is very valuable. However, ever curious, I asked my friend Tom how he would handle the time spent on answering Emails. The ensuing Email exchange between Tom and myself went like this:

Max responds

Tom, RE: Estimating

I enjoyed your interesting reflections on Estimating. I agree with the figures you suggest for actual production compared to employed time. An issue that has come up recently with me, and an activity that you didn't mention is reading/responding to Emails (business or otherwise). This seems to be consuming an ever-increasing amount of employee time, and difficult to control. But in any case, the question is how does that get paid for? How does, or should the organization allocate the cost of the time spent if it is not included in the project?

In my experience, if the employee is working full time on a project, the project inevitably pays for it. If the employee is only working part time on the project, the project does NOT EXPECT to pay for it. If the employee were in fact a "contract employee", paid by the hour, then any "unproductive" time billed would be rejected.

Because of this, in spite of higher rates paid for contract employees (including payroll burdens and markup) it transpires that contract employees are frequently less costly from a project perspective. They may also provide more on-demand flexibility.

The inevitable question then, is this good corporate practice?

Tom responds


Good thought process on emails. My thoughts are as follows - similar but not quite the same.

  • Employee full-time on project - project pays for the email time. In fact, most of the emails should be project-related if the person is full time. Any emails related to prior work should start to wind down. So this seems very fair and reasonable.
  • Contractor full time on project - project pays for all email time. Same as above. It should be even more true that the emails should be pretty much project related if the contractor is full-time on a project. They will get some generic stuff for sure but the substantial volume of emails should be project related.
  • Employee part-time on projects. I think it is reasonable that the employee allocate email time between project and non-project work. It will be an estimate for sure but not one that is worth quibbling about. If a client will not pay for email time, then I would tell them the team would not communicate via email. All communication is voicemail or in-person.
  • Contractor part-time - same as employee, but they probably need to do a little more diligence in tracking their email time to make sure it is allocated as close as practical. If the client will not pay for this time, then I would tell them that the contractor will not be on email and all communication needs to be phone calls or in-person. I suspect the client will pay. It is reasonable expectation and it is fair.

Max responds

Tom, I agree with you 100% - in an ideal world. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world.

I worked as a consultant for a government department at an outlying post admittedly for a short while. The Email system was permanently on - that is to say the PC user was immediately notified of an incoming Email.

Emails arrived throughout the day. True, the recipient did not have to stop and answer them or even read them but you know the temptation is difficult to resist, and the difficulty of resisting the urge to comment back even greater. Even the jingle of "You've got mail", or similar, is disruptive.

The consequence was a continuous stream of interruption for most people. What that must have done to their productivity was incalculable. Worse yet, most Emails tended to be broadcast "Reply to all", relevant or not and, the final clincher, a fair proportion of these were of distinctly dubious humor. The department lead participated, even originating some of the dubious Emails presumably believing that he was contributing to a cohesive team environment.

Since this was all taking place on my tax dime, I was, shall we say, unimpressed. Of course a number of Emails were administrative notices, but nonetheless not project related.

I believe that some way should be found to channel administrative and project Emails into separate time slots during the day. The former should be recognized as administrative overhead and occur at the end of the day, with the time covered by salary burden, i.e. overhead. The latter are obviously project chargeable and should occur at the start of the day. If any of the forgoing are really urgent then let them be one-on-one by telephone. All other Emails should be strictly forbidden during working hours.

Would it be too much to expect for a corporate policy to be promulgated on this basis, and strongly enforced - in the interests of productive efficiency?

Tom responds

Max, there is no question emails can be disruptive, but some of it boils down to discipline. If you have the urge to check emails all day, then they can be an all-day distraction. (Frankly I have this "problem" as well.)

I think we are in agreement that project emails should be charged to the project. I still think that these work related emails are much more common than administrative and I just have never seen that the administrative emails are so much of a burden. What are they about - organizational announcements, re-orgs, news from HR. Yes, there are some of these, but I would think 80% of emails are project related. For sure the ones that require action/feedback will be overwhelmingly project related. So, I am thinking that it is not worth trying to separate time between project and administrative emails. I would charge all of the email time to the project.

Exception - perhaps an organization is sending out an administrative email that does require a substantial amount of time from the recipients. In that case, they should start an administrative project and tell people to bill their time to this project. Then the logic still works.

I would place joke/humor emails in the category of forbidden emails and corporate policy should squash them.

So there you have the definitive recommendation. What do you think? What is your experience?

1. In this case, the distraction of texting on one or more different subject materials, resulting in the employee applying less than their full attention to the project at hand.
2. Mochal, T., TenStep Project Management Tip of the Week, by Email dated July 8, 2009.
Home | Issacons | PM Glossary | Papers & Books | Max's Musings
Guest Articles | Contact Info | Search My Site | Site Map | Top of Page