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.

I’m Invested; Why Aren’t They?
When your managers ask why people don’t work long hours, they often think people aren’t “invested” in the organization. One senior executive asked me this question, “I’m invested. Why aren’t the people in my organization as invested as I am?” I asked him if he had open book management. Did people know the purpose of all the projects and where the money went? “No.” I asked him if shared all the profits equally. He looked horrified. “No, of course not. I started this company. I should own more of it. I deserve the sweat equity.”

I asked him why he thought everyone should be as invested as he was. He was keeping the lion’s share of the profits. Why did he think everyone would be as invested as he was?

Now, we all know that people don’t primarily work for money. As Dan Pink explained in Drive, as long as you are paid enough money, you work for mastery, autonomy and purpose. But if the senior managers are tracking time and not results, and they are attempting to reward the technical staff with money, they are not allowing the people to work for mastery. The people don’t have sufficient autonomy. And, I suspect there is inadequate purpose in what people are doing. When I had that conversation, the executive walked away, concerned.

It takes a different kind of investment, doesn’t it?

What’s the Real Problem?
When a manager wants people to work overtime, to feel invested in an organization, what’s the real issue behind the words? It might be that the manager wants people to have the same sense of investment in the organization as the manager does. In that case, it’s useful to ask, am I creating an environment where people feel autonomous? Do they have purpose? Are they mastering their craft?

It might not be that at all. It could be an issue of project portfolio management, where people are spread so thinly around so many projects that they don’t have time for any single project. If so, see if your manager is caught up in the myth of 100 percent utilization.

Sometimes, managers think they can measure people by the time they spend at work. Wanting people to work overtime is related to that myth. 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.

Remember, only adults work in your organization. If you want different results, look at the environment you have created. Does it allow for autonomy, mastery, and purpose? If not, what do you need to do?



Read more of Johanna's management myth columns here:

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

About the author

AgileConnection is a TechWell community.

Through conferences, training, consulting, and online resources, TechWell helps you develop and deliver great software every day.