Why it’s right to hate spreadsheets

Argh come on! The standard cry of a frustrated business owner when a spreadsheet refuses to work. But what are the major issues with spreadsheets?

David Quinn: BrightHR Social Media Manager

On the face of it, spreadsheets may seem like the perfect solution to your business problems. Budgets, expenses, your staff’s annual leave, it can do it. And it looks so easy to use, with it’s colourful conditional formatting, easy to read graphs and extremely useful pivot tables. But don’t be fooled, spreadsheets are a nightmare and can't be trusted.

We’ve probably all experienced the frustration of not getting spreadsheets right and then the frustration of trawling back through the cells to work out what the hell went wrong, or that pesky graph that won't quite look how you want it to.

But what are the main issues with spreadsheets? We decided to take a look at some of our biggest Excel frustrations.

The issue with spreadsheets

  • Formulae fear

Do you know your IFs from what WHATIFs, your VLOOKUPs from your pivot tables, or why you keep getting that #ERROR return? Spreadsheet formulae can be a minefield. After looking up the answer on 15 different websites you finally get the solution, but even then you can't be confident it’s correct. Have you put the $ in the correct place in the formula bar? Is it actually calculating the correct figure? You end up using a calculator just to check the nested formula has actually worked.

This can be problematic especially if using spreadsheets to set up your holiday requests and holiday entitlements. Get it wrong and you might be giving someone far too much, or far too little, holiday allowance.


  • The annoying ‘Read-only’


One of the major issues with spreadsheets, is the inability to work on a document when someone else has it open. That’s when the dreaded ‘Read Only’ comes in. Sometimes you don't even notice you're in read-only, you make all your amends and just as you go to save it you realise you’ll have to save another version (which can cause problems in itself - see below), or you’ve wasted your time, and now you’re going to have to do it all over again when the sheet becomes available. Holiday request, expense forms, budgets - all of these could be affected.

  • Version (out of) control

Are you ever confident that you’re using the correct version of the spreadsheet? There’s “V.7.2 (Final- USE THIS ONE)” but also “V.7.3”. Which one do you use? It’s causing a headache just thinking about it. But this can happen very easily, especially if you’re using emails to send and amend documents. Each person will have to download the file and resave, changing the file name. Each time it’s sent round there will be a new file name created. You’ll have versions of versions, final versions, use this one, initials, points on points. The whole thing becomes unworkable as you’ll never really know what the most up to date version is.

  • Use it or lose it

Like anything, the more you practice the better you get. However, when it comes to spreadsheets you only have to stop using it for a short spell and you forget where half the features and functions sit. That means you have to spend far more time searching around google to get the answer. It’s not intuitive at all.

Have you ever used a function or button only to completely forget which menu it’s in or what the button even looks like? We all have. Was it a macro I used? How do I add a drop-down box? And how on earth do I freeze the first row again? Why has my percentage column now got so many zeroes in, it’s meant to be 23% not 2300%. You get the picture. Surely there’s a more user-friendly option!

  • Starting with nothing

When you have a working spreadsheet it's great. But building the perfect Excel workbook takes time, effort and many iterations before you get there. We all know the feeling of knowing what you want to get from a spreadsheet but when you see that sea of empty cells you don't know where to start. Even when you do get started it usually turns out you’ve been doing it wrong or there's something you didn’t quite anticipate happening. It all means going back a few steps to sort the whole thing out, it’s time you don't really have. To paraphrase a typical Apprentice contestant: “on a thousand-cell journey, the first cell is always the hardest.”

Time to switch spreadsheets for software

All of the well-known problems listed above, and more, are solved the minute you switch to software, and when it comes to holiday leave and sickness monitoring there’s BrightHR .

With BrightHR there’s no need for spreadsheets. Employees can request holidays via our website or our app, managers are alerted of any requests in real-time, can check conflicts and holiday entitlement in an instant and can approve leave with confidence. It’s simple to setup and easy to use, and the nifty in-built reports provide powerful data and insight at your fingertips, without you ever needing to know what a formula is, Take a look at what BrightHR can offer your business with our 30-day free trial.

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