Consistent Overtime Doesn’t Work

It’s a Friday morning and the schedule is crunched.  All the sudden, your manager drops the dreaded “O” bomb on you.  “Hey, can you work overtime to get this done?”

Occasional overtime might be inevitable… maybe.  But consistently having to work over is the sign of an underlying problem.  Let’s discuss what impacts working more than normal can have on both employees and the business.

The Impacts of Overtime on Employee Morale

Overtime

I want to say it’s awful and has devastating effects on everybody involved.

Honestly though, I think it depends on the person.

I have seen some people thrive under this type of pressure.  They enjoy the tight deadlines and the importance it brings.  If you must deliver something really soon, you are working on really important stuff!

I think that is an outlier, though.

From most people I’ve talked to, it seems like one of those things that shouldn’t happen too often but is inevitable.

If that is the prevalent attitude, some overtime is probably OK.  As long as it is not constant.  (In this discussion, I’m considering salaried employees who aren’t paid extra for overtime.  Hourly employees may appreciate the extra pay that comes with overtime – although, again, this probably differs from employee to employee.)

It is worth mentioning this, and I can’t stress this enough:

If your employees are already working 100% during the day, you should tread very carefully.  Talking to co-workers or taking time to work on creative ideas that might improve the company (but aren’t directly related to the current assignment) should be expected to some degree.

Adding extra time to an already overworked employee is a good recipe for burnout.  Watch out!

Assuming that employee is not overworked already and an occasional request to work overtime is probably not the end of the world.

That being said, if it is consistently used to meet deadlines, you may want to consider a bigger picture.  Do you really want to accept this level of risk for your company?

Overtime Consequences on Business Risk

I do not hear this discussed very much, but overtime has consequences as a business.

Most deadlines are not hard deadlines.  If you miss it, it is bad.  However, it is not the end of the world.

But let’s flip this for a second… let’s say if you don’t meet a deadline, something catastrophic happens.  A asteroid is rushing towards the Earth, and if you don’t stop it, all life on Earth as we know it ends.

Comet Impact

Yes, this is an extreme hyperbole.  But hang with me for a few seconds – I have a good point I want to make.

In this type of situation, do you want to depend on overtime to get the job done?

HECK NO!

You want to be done with this weeks, months, or even years in advance.  You would like an extremely sophisticated test framework, models, and everything else to verify this would work properly.

Ideally, you do not want people working extra on this as it could increase the chances of errors.  It also might not get done in time… which is simply unacceptable.

Rather than Overtime, Plan Better

Rather than wait until it is too late to finish the project to start worrying about it, let’s think about this from another angle.

Obviously, meeting deadlines (for whatever reason the deadline exists, whether a customer commitment, soft deliverable to track progress, or something else) is not as urgent as in the case of an impending asteroid hitting the Earth.  But here’s the key…

If you actually value hitting deadlines, why are you not planning for this way in advance or learning from previous failures???

I almost guarantee if the deadline was as important as the above scenario, changes would be made to guarantee that delivery.  And risk mitigation strategies for meeting that deadline would not be done hours or days before the deadline.

So here’s the deal…

If meeting deadlines is a make-or-break situation for you, you absolutely cannot wait until the end to get involved in the success of a project.  The right time to mitigate risk for a deadline is weeks or months before that deadline.  (Assuming you aren’t doing some form of sprints to mitigate that risk already.)

Regardless of what anybody says – if the issue about deadlines comes up only right as the deadline arrives, it wasn’t a priority.

Period.

Plan better.  Learn from previous mistakes.  Don’t act like something is the most important thing ever just because the deadline is occurring tomorrow when the deadline has existed for weeks or months.

My Respect for a ScrumMaster

At one of my previous developer positions, the ScrumMaster of our group had a really good communication channel with the customer.

Respect

As a developer, I did not communicate with the customer (something I think is far too common in this industry – developers having no communication with the end user).

The ScrumMaster made it clear that for each feature we may not hit a deadline, we had options for its completion:

  • We can extend the deadline
  • The scope of the feature can get reduced

Overtime was never brought up.  We were in a meeting where one of the stakeholders (a project manager, I think) stood up and asked in a perturbed manner why we weren’t hitting our commitments.

The ScrumMaster told that PM that they weren’t commitments, but best guesses.  They had a conversation after that meeting.  Eventually that person apologized to our team.

Talk about respect.  As a younger engineer, I didn’t really understand the impact of what that ScrumMaster was doing.

To this day, I really appreciate what he did.  A fantastic handling of the entire situation.

Now… if that person asked me to work overtime, do you think I would be willing to work some extra?

Absolutely!  There has been a lot of effort to keep commitments, reduce scope, and everything else has been planned to try to keep it from happening.

The deadline was taken into consideration a lot earlier due to breaking the work apart into sprints.  In addition, lots of effort was made to prevent working extra.

Conclusion

There is a lot of politics, morale, and business cases to consider when thinking about overtime.

Thinking

As a general rule, I believe employees are going to be more willing to work overtime when the following is true:

  • The requester is involved day-to-day in furthering the development of the product
  • Measures have been taken far in advance and processes are in place to try to prevent working extra
  • Meeting the deadline does not take a vast amount of extra work (you are close to the finish line already)
  • Good relationship with whomever is requesting overtime

As a business, prevention of working after hours is going to make you more likely to meet your deadlines.

The focus shouldn’t constantly be on hitting the next deadline, but rather how do we prevent ourselves from getting into this situation.

This type of higher-level thinking is what prevents potentially killing the morale of overworked employees.

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