Managing work in spreadsheets costs more than you think

by Staff Writer

Just because something is ubiquitous doesn’t mean it’s the better way. There are countless examples of products and tools that though popular simply don’t deliver on their promise. And within businesses of all sizes, one of the biggest culprits is spreadsheets.

Though a majority of businesses use spreadsheets in various capacities, these tools are often used by default without anyone giving serious consideration to the benefits or costs they offer compared to other solutions. In the drive to improve efficiency and cost effectiveness that’s slowly starting to change: one report focused on finance and accounting professionals, for example, found that Excel usage for budgeting and planning purposes dropped six percentage points from 2017 to 2018, to 63%.

This suggests that many businesses have yet to evaluate the hidden productivity toll and other costs of managing work in spreadsheets. Here are seven ways that using spreadsheets to manage tasks and projects can cost your business.

1. Spreadsheets slow you down

Whether you’re trying to beat the competition to market, eliminate a barrier to customer adoption, or achieve some other goal, an ability to act fast is one of the top differentiators of high-performing companies. But all too often, spreadsheets slow people down by requiring individuals to manually perform repetitive tasks that can be streamlined and/or automated on other platforms. This can include things like manually populating the same information into numerous files, and extra steps such as sending an email to notify others every time you make a change.

At a glance, these added tasks may not seem too onerous. But that time adds up quickly, across tasks, employees, and departments, taking a hefty productivity toll on companies. According to the Smartsheet Automation Report, four in 10 workers say they spend a quarter of their workweek on manual, repetitive tasks such as those required by spreadsheets, and 59% say the automation of such work could save six or more hours per week.


59 percent statistic with clock icon


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2. Spreadsheets constrain collaboration

Today’s employees have to collaborate across teams and business lines, with both internal and external partners in different locations, and using different devices. In fact, 80% of businesses say collaboration is a must for delivering on top business objectives.  Yet in order for employees to do so effectively, they increasingly need a platform that’s up to the task.

One recent Deloitte report found a strong expectation among business leaders that workers will spend more time using collaboration platforms, as well as a high level of corporate anxiety about whether legacy productivity tools can pull their weight in this respect.

Spreadsheets act as barriers to collaboration by restricting users from simultaneously making changes in real time. Version control also becomes a nightmare as multiple people make changes to a spreadsheet and lose track of the version they should be working from, resulting in lost time and inaccurate data.

3. Spreadsheets aren’t connected

Not only do spreadsheets pose a barrier to collaboration, but the fact that they aren’t connected can lead to siloed information, particularly if spreadsheets are being emailed around as they are updated.

Even if they’re cloud-based, spreadsheets are not necessarily connected to other parts of the business or the project at hand. There’s no way to attach or store related files, annotate the file with related information, or comment on the progression of work itself.

Though employees can take steps – sometimes many steps – to integrate data manually, relying on a platform that doesn’t seamlessly connect with all your other tools makes it hard to create a single source of record.

The standalone nature of spreadsheets also makes it difficult to report on work. Showing how a project is progressing based on a plan that’s being tracked in a spreadsheet is time consuming, and surfacing high-level project information for executives and key stakeholders becomes a reporting tax.  Even worse, when data gets locked in silos, the lack of visibility may mean information gets missed altogether. This can affect the accuracy of rollup reports and status updates and erode your ability to make informed decisions.

4. Spreadsheets aren’t accurate

In the absence of features such as version control and integrations with other enterprise tools errors abound. Whether due to the need to manually enter data, a lack of clarity about whether you are working from the most recent version, or the potential for overwrites, spreadsheets are rife with opportunities to erode the integrity of your data. In fact, researchers have found that the overwhelming majority of spreadsheets – a whopping 90% – contain errors that can range from minor to severe.


90 percent statistic with icon

5. Spreadsheets lack accountability

Part of the reason problems such as errors and version control issues are so rampant in spreadsheets is that they lack an inherent way to identify and track changes, such as who modified what information when. Even when spreadsheets have a feature that enables workers to track changes, this feature can easily be turned off, or become irrelevant in light of a completely different version of the spreadsheet.

Conversely, a cloud-based work execution platform that offers audit trails seamlessly collects and retains information about events related to your information, such as who accessed it and what changes they made, mitigating a number of unintentional and malicious risks. Furthermore, as audit logs are required in some industries, these tools increase the ease of fulfilling compliance obligations.

6. Spreadsheets aren’t secure

Whether it’s trade secrets or customer data, in this era of growing cybercrime, protecting sensitive business information has never been more important. But because they’re not designed with securing information as a primary purpose, spreadsheet lack built-in protections and can inherently put you at risk of both accidental and malicious breaches.

Take sharing as an example: it’s all too easy to email a confidential spreadsheet to the wrong person by mistake or for the right person to forward that file on to an unauthorized individual. On the other hand, relying on a secure platform with granular controls to manage your work lets you feel confident that only approved users can access specific information.

7. Spreadsheets don’t let you scale

Managing a set list of tasks in a spreadsheet? Not a problem — maybe. Managing a larger initiative that involves different teams and workflows, changing information, and other complexities? You might be able to do so successfully. Yet while the limitations discussed might not be problematic for simple projects, these issues can compound as more people and parts are introduced. At some point your process will break down.

Why? As collaboration increases, along with the speed at which you need to get work done, you’ll notice the strain of relying on spreadsheets to be your workhorses.They may seem like a convenient, free tool to help you get work done, but there’s a point at which the costs far outweigh the benefits.

Instead of relying on spreadsheets to do the heavy lifting, look for a platform that scales as you grow, providing secure features that improve collaboration, accountability, and accuracy so that you can move quickly and have an impact on your organization.