The concept of tracking employee work hours can be deceptively simple. In practice, it can be a vexing chore.

In my shop of five contract employees, we started out with paper invoices. I would beg, I would plead, and still they would arrive months late. Next, we tried e-mailed time sheets. They were fine -- when they showed up, which was half the time. Finally, like many businesses, I invested in comprehensive online project-management software that did everything from estimate projects to track hours. Too complicated, my employees moaned.

I'm trying again, this time with simple applications that focus more on simply tracking time. The benefits of single-use tools include being simpler to learn, working better with existing business software and lower cost in both time and money. And I recruited my most, um, vocal employee, who finds most complex web-based business applications not worth the effort. She prefers simple email and the phone for tracking work. The two of us tested out some stripped-down time-tracking apps to see if they could make both our lives easier.

Here's a round-up of our tests of clock-watching tools, including their advantages, drawbacks and the types of users they might fit best.

1. Toggl
Best for tech-averse companies that want a simple, Web-based solution.

What it does: Toggl claims to offer effortless time-tracking, even of jobs performed in fragments. It can be used on the Web site or downloaded to your desktop or to your iPhone or Android phone. The product was created by Apprise, a company based in Estonia. Pricing plans include $12 a month for five users and $39 a month for 20 users.

Why it might work for you: Sign-up, adding tasks and logging hours are easy. A "continue" button next to each job makes it simple to log chunks of time on the same job. A handy, easy to manage onscreen timer lets employees track precisely how long they work on a job.

Why it might not: Project-management features are not as slick as Toggl claims. It can track against the total time spent on a job, but not nearly as powerfully as project-management software, such as LiquidPlanner, ManyMoon or Netsuite. Also, the whole system relies the users on tagging projects with a consistent set of keywords, which can be tough to get right. Defining them often becomes a matter of debate. And there are some issues with that handy timer. First, there's no verifying that the employee using it is actually working. Second, it's easy to forget to turn it off, although if that happens, you can easily adjust hours later.


2. yaTimer
Best for solepreneurs or those who want a desktop-based timing tool

What it does: YaTimer, from the small Israeli-based software-developer NBD Tech Ltd., is a downloadable app that lives on users' desktops. It isn't web-based, so connectivity is not needed for it to work. It caters to the multi-tasker and lets users track time on more one than one job at once. The app costs $27 to $39 per user per year.

Why it might work for you: YaTimer's forms-based interface can be customized for your employees and it has professional feel. Think Outlook, but for time-tracking. It has helpful features like estimating how much time remains on a job. And I liked the big clock that sits on workers' desktops and reminds them that they are working for you -- and not getting paid to play with the kids or check out the latest on Facebook.

Why it might not: Reporting is not as collaborative as with more Web-based apps. In my testing, it was far too easy to delete time accidentally without accurately reporting it. As for the multi-tasking option, is it really possible to work on two projects at once? More seriously, Jill, a Mac-user, could not download the Windows-only software.


3. Tick
Best for collaborative, software-savvy shops that want a powerful task-based time-management tool

What it does: Tick, from Molehill, a small web-app developer based in Jacksonville, Fla., bills itself as an intuitive time-tracking app. It highlights how much work is left on a project, so companies can easily see if they need to regroup to stay on budget. A $19-a-month plan for small businesses allows for 15 open projects, and a plan with unlimited open projects costs $79 a month.

Why it might work for you: Tick offers a mix of powerful desktop functions and easy-to-use, web-based reporting. Client assignments and task-management tools are intuitive, and I found central administration of clients simple and helpful. Tick has your back: When Jill accidentally booked 9.48 hours for a job I had budgeted for just one hour, she immediately saw a scary red bar telling her she was seriously over budget on the job, and I got an e-mail with the same unhappy news. I could see that feature paying off.

Why it might not: Tick is not as simple as it seems at first. It took effort to enter and correctly manage client names, project names and how you want to handle billing. Also, in our business, we often do part of a job and come back to it later. We had trouble figuring out how to do that with Tick.

Time-keeping is just like any other bit of business software: The tool itself is not a solution to a practical business problem. It would be a mistake to simply pick a tool, deploy it and hope it works. You need to carefully see if one solution helps your particular employees. That means, some testing is in order. Try out the one that seems to meet your needs best for a month or two. And if you see a gain, roll the service out.