Management Myth 15: I Need People to Work Overtime


When you force people to timebox their work to just the workday, they start making choices about the work they do and don’t do. They stop doing time-wasting work. They start doing useful work, and they start collaborating. But, only if you stop interfering.

Dave, the CIO, strode down the hall to Sarah’s office. Sarah’s the delivery services manager. He walked in, carefully closed the door, and sat down.

“Sarah, we need to talk. I don’t like the ship you’re running here. Everyone leaves between 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. They just walk out! How can you expect to get through everything we need to get done this quarter?”

Sarah carefully saved what she was doing and turned to her boss. “Dave, is there a problem with our deliveries? Are we not delivering what we said we would? As far as I know, we have delivered everything we have committed to. I know you want more than we can do. I understand you want more, and we are working on seeing what we can do. But we are delivering what we commit to. What’s the real problem?”

Dave exploded and jumped up to pace, “People leave! At five o’clock! Don’t they know we need commitment? We need everyone rowing the same boat here!”

Sarah was confused by the ship references. “Dave, what is this with the boat and ship business? What have you seen or heard that makes you believe we are not all together?

“The teams work together as cross-functional teams. They start with their standups at 9 a.m. Almost everyone arrives before then. By 5 p.m. they are bushed. By 5:30 p.m. they are more than done. Do you want tired people working on your code base or tests or documentation? No, you do not. You want people who have put in an honest day of work, and that’s it. You don’t need people to work overtime.

“Do you want to know what I’ve told people? I’ve told them to take index cards home. If they have a good idea or a great idea, they can write it down on an index card. That way they don’t lose it. The next day, they bring the index card back to work, and then they can implement their great idea.

“We measured the results of this. Our defect counts have gone way down. Our innovation, our new ideas, have gone way up. Why? Because people are not overtired. They are happy with their families. They are healthy, because they are eating properly and going to the gym. Now, what is the problem, exactly?”

“I need you to finish more projects.”

“Okay, then you need to either take projects off our project portfolio, like I said in our conversation yesterday or let me hire more people. But you can’t just get more work out of the people we have. People can’t think more. Or harder. Or faster. Or whatever cliché you want to use. If you like, we can brainstorm more ideas for how to get more projects done. But don’t tell me to have people work overtime. That’s crazy. I won’t do it.”

Management Work Is Different From Technical Work
When managers ask people to work overtime, they are not thinking about what a technical day is like. Especially if you work on an agile team, they are not thinking of what an agile day is like. A manager’s day is fraught with interruption and context switching every ten minutes. Many managers feel as if they need to wait until 5 p.m. to get anything done.

But if you are a technical person who has arranged your day so you have a good two-hour chunk in the morning, and a couple of more two-hour chunks in the afternoon, you have accomplished your work for the day. Your brain is tired and you need to leave. If you have paired or swarmed or worked with a cross-functional team, you are tired. You need to leave, to refresh your brain for the next day.

If you are not lucky enough to have a day like that, you have even less time to concentrate. If you have been context switching all day, from project support to new development, to testing a new feature to understanding a regression, you are exhausted. You need to leave at the end of the day and understand how to organize your day so you accomplish more the next day.

User Comments

Keith Collyer's picture
Keith Collyer

The previous commenter didn't prove that "what we all know" is wrong, but that we don't all know what we all know ;) Despite the many, many published research results showing quite unequivocally that money (once you have "enough") is not an effective reward (and may even be counter-productive), so many people refuse to believe it. Indeed, unless the previous commenter works for Goldman Sachs, he probably proves it himself.

March 22, 2013 - 12:46pm
Kenneth Katz's picture
Kenneth Katz

"Now, we all know that people don’t primarily work for money."

If that's the case, then we what "we all know" is incorrect. Have you ever noticed that companies that try to hire engineers and other techies at $75,000 per year are constantly complaining about a shortage of candidates, but Goldman Sachs never complains about a shortage of candidates? I doubt it is because investment banking is actually all that pleasant or interesting a career.

I don't hate my job, coworkers, manager or company; actually quite to the contrary. I'm a professional and I approach my job accordingly. But my job is first and foremost about the money, not self-actualization.

March 19, 2013 - 12:51pm

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