Web design firm creates “loving” Ogre to keep staff productive

Imagine its 4:30 in the afternoon and you’ve already mentally checked out of the office, daydreaming of the weekend that awaits you. Suddenly your Inbox chime goes off and you snap back to reality when you read a message that goes something like this:

“Hello. Your goal was to work on your project for five hours today, but you’ve only logged three and a half hours. Are you sure you’ve correctly accounted for all the time you spent in the office today? Love, Ogre.”

After seeing the signature at the end of this message, you’d probably think it was a joke.

But employees at Union Street Media in Burlington, Vt. know to take the message seriously – in fact, working with Ogre is a part of working at the Web design firm every day.

It’s not a derogatory nickname for an office grump, but an in-house software tool for tracking productivity.  

“Time tracking is like flossing your teeth. You know it’s good for you, but no one wants to do it,” says Andy Vota, vice-president of Union Street Media. “A machine doesn’t forget and there’s no emotion – it’s going to e-mail you at 4:30 every day if you haven’t logged your time.”

The Web site design and marketing firm focuses on high-end Web sites for realtors. The small company, located in a refurbished former schoolhouse, has 16 full-time employees and six part-time workers or contractors.

The need to develop an in-house tool for time tracking was felt when the company realized it had difficulty billing its clients based on how much time staff were spending on each project, according to Ted Adler, founder of Union Street Media.

Now Union Street is able to automatically generate invoices based on time dedicated to a project.

“Earlier it was so time consuming, we used to invoice quarterly,” he says. “Now we’re doing it monthly or even weekly.”

The results are an improved cash flow, and invoices sent to clients more often and for lesser amounts. In addition customers can see a detailed list of exactly how long was spent on a task, what the task was, and who performed the work.

“That makes for happier customers,” Adler says.

In times of economic uncertainty, the company sees staff productivity as more important than ever. The Ogre project started just one year ago, when the warning signs of economic troubles were just starting to be made apparent. Now a recession seems imminent.

The U.S Mortgage Bankers Association forecasts the longest recession seen in two decades, lasting a minimum of three quarters.

The economic situation is equally grim in Canada, with the Bank of Nova Scotia and the Bank of Montreal predicting a recession over the next two quarters.

For Union Street Media, business remains strong. Clients aren’t phoning up to cancel their Web sites yet. But business is slowing compared to past years of success. Since it opened shop in 1999, the company has being growing at a rate of 30 per cent a year, but that exceptional pace won’t continue this year.

“As things have tightened up, we’ve seen a bit of a slowdown in business. It’s probably just a hiccup,” Adler says. But “if things are moving along at this pace in a few months, certainly there will have to be some changes.”

A company always has productivity in mind, but Vota says in the current situation management is looking at it harder than ever, and the staff understands what’s at stake.

“They care about it a lot more too because they want to do everything they can to ensure our long term sustainability.”  

The tool looks almost like a social networking Web site geared towards business. Employees have their own profiles listing contact details, their manager, and what projects they are currently assigned too.

Projects are listed on the main dashboard and can be organized by client. Employees create a time entry and tag it with a quick description for each project. They can either enter the amount of time they worked on the task, or click on a small icon that starts a timer for them. A simple animation indicates a timer is active, and clicking it again stops the timer and records the minutes worked.

As projects near the costs estimated to the client, they become highlighted in orange to draw the attention of project managers. Combined with the to-the-minute billing, this has helped United Street Media improve the budget accuracy for each project 10-fold, Vota says.

“We have the ability to understand what’s happening in the company on a real-time basis,” he says. “We can go to a screen that shows what everyone is working on at the moment.”

Ogre isn’t just a mean-spirited boss that forces employees to measure their time. It also has the ability to adapt to requests from users of the system. For example, the “search” feature has been improved to predict what words employees are typing. Another feature was added that allows a user to duplicate a time allocation item – a way to save time on keeping your time.

One advantage of being a small business in a troubled economy is the ability to shift focus, Adler says. The company could pull together and start focusing on a different line of business if realtors stop asking for high-end Web sites. Selling Ogre is one possibility.

“We think this is a product we could market pretty broadly,” he says.

The system would sell like hot cakes if the reactions of those who see the system are any indication, Vota adds.

“Wow, do you sell that?” he is often asked. But for now, business is good and Union Street Media will remain focused on its core competency – building Web sites.

Adler certainly appreciates not having to finish each of his days by walking around the office and reminding people to log their time. He’d rather leave that up to Ogre.

And always, with love.

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