The ‘6 minute block’

Last week I got chatting to a friend of mine, and once the we’d exhausted talk of sci-fi, zombies and video games, we inevitably started talking about work. He’s one of my few friends who doesn’t work in the web, he’s a lawyer at a pretty big firm in Manchester.

We started talking about time tracking, and as he began telling me how their law firm tracked day-to-day tasks; I started to wonder whether any of this was transferable to our industry.

The Method

Instead of charging by day, half-day or by hour, their firm charges by ‘blocks’.

1 block = 6 minutes

Although six minutes seems like a weird number at first, it doesn’t take a maths genius to realise that it manages to decimalise the somewhat awkward unit of time.

Secondly, and what I found the most interesting, is it’s versatility. Six minutes is granular enough to encompass any minuscule task, but can easily be multiplied up to represent any larger chunk of time.

30 mins = 5 blocks
1 hour = 10 blocks
A ‘typical’ 9-to-5 day = 75 blocks.

How they work

Everything is tracked, everything is billable. Drafting letters, photocopying, e-mails, phonecalls, research, meetings…everything.

Whilst there are moments of focus, sometimes an hour or two solid on one client, the majority of work is a plate-spinning exercise. One para-legal can have up to 40 active cases, all at varying stages of the legal process. A day typically works by jumping from case to case, sending correspondence and chasing responses.

Throughout any given week, a client is typically charged anywhere between 5 and 25 blocks, but they’ll usually be done in pepperings of 1 or 2 blocks at a time.

It doesn’t take long to realise that without the ‘6 minute block’ system, they’d find it pretty hard to charge clients anything.

Translating to the Web

Whilst having this conversation, my thoughts immediately thought about the maintenance and support aspect of our industry; of which I’ve had some experience in.

To me, support and maintenance as a concept is something that’s easy to provide but hard to master. It’s a careful balance between being rightfully paid everything you’re due whilst being perceived as fair and ‘good value’ by the client.

Some requests are so small, mere 2 or 3 minute jobs, that you might question whether you should actually charge for it at all; perhaps marking it down as a freebie. But that opens dangerous territory where, before you know it, a flurry of small requests over a month leaves you a *hours* out-of-pocket.

Do you mark down those 2 or 3 minutes? Do you risk having, in my opinion, a rather petty-looking invoice breakdown that’s as long as your arm? Do you mess about, combining requests to appear more substantial? Do you aim high and just round up figures? But to what? 10 minutes? 15 minutes? The full hour?!

My very first job in this industry was in helpdesk support. It charged for everything, and it charged in blocks of 15 minutes. Regardless of length, time was rounded up to the nearest 15 minutes. It didn’t take long for clients to realise that 4 phone-calls, none lasting longer than 4 minutes, where being charged as an hour. The lesson learnt was: clients aren’t going to stick around if they feel like they’re being ripped off.

This is where I think this ‘6 minute block’ system could strike a good balance in maintenance and support. By charging with small blocks, you’re paid everything you’re owed but you keep on your client’s good side. For example, if you charge £90 an hour, 1 block translates to £9. For a bit of advice, adding a snippet of code or doing some project house-keeping, I’d say nine quid is a bargain.