Overtime is not a solution

Every project is defined by a schedule. That schedule determines when certain tasks start and stop, when people enter and leave a project, and ultimately how much that project will cost (because, after all, time is money).  But as we all know, the schedule you start with is almost never the one you end with.

Schedules change. No-one can predict the future. No-one can see the out-of-left-field problems, the people unable to work due to sudden illness (or worse), or the sudden changes in project direction. When a project’s schedule starts to go sour, time management rapidly becomes extremely important. In a world where deadlines are fixed and resources are limited, one of the most common solutions is to work overtime.

However, overtime is not a solution. Overtime is a problem.

Let’s be honest, “overtime” is easy to say. Overtime is so easy to offer as a suggestion, but people don’t always know what it means right away. I personally find using overtime sort of like going through the five stages of grief:

  1. Denial: The project doesn’t need overtime. We can achieve the goal without it.
  2. Anger: Why is someone else demanding that I or my team work overtime?
  3. Bargaining: What can we do to minimise the amount of overtime?
  4. Depression: Shit.
  5. Acceptance: We have to do overtime.

In the end, overtime can only achieve a partial success. It can never achieve a complete success, because the use of overtime ultimately masks the original problem: something went off the rails. And because of that incomplete success, it remains a problem.

Overtime is not a problem in mere logistics. The act of asking (no matter how difficult it may be), accounting for the overtime (most operations dealing with overtime have tools to track it), and payment (at least where applicable — our industry often ignores this aspect of overtime) are trivial. The impact of overtime, however, is substantial.

First, overtime ignores the original problem. In my experience, better than 4/5 of the issues stem from the project scope: poorly-defined, insufficiently investigated, or simply allowed to accumulate without recognition of additional time (simple reality: adding even a single edit beyond the previous accepted work incurs more time).

I’m guilty many times over of scope-creep. One little change becomes 10 little changes, becomes 50 little changes. That’s why it’s called “creep”. It’s a gamble: you hope your changes have little or no incremental affect on delivery time. Sometimes you win, and the work blends in well. Other times, your schedule mysteriously extends by days, or even weeks.

Second, overtime places additional stress on those who now have to spend the extra time. Even if someone is willing to work overtime (especially in cases when there will be compensation), there is the additional mental and physical toll. Over short periods of time, the effect is within reason. However, over longer periods of time (even as little as a week), stress can mount quickly and the effectiveness of that extra time will decrease significantly.

In my career, I have worked countless thousands of hours of overtime. And I have paid for that overtime with weight gain, blepharospasms, cavities (from too much Coca-Cola), an inability to sleep, issues with personal hygiene (showering at the office isn’t always possible), which ultimately led to mistakes in my work.

Finally, overtime goes beyond to affect others beyond the company: families, friends, and social circles. That person (or people) often has others who depend on them for a variety of responsibilities, even if as simple as reading a bedtime story to a child. When a person is not present due to overtime, it can lead to other difficulties beyond the office. Sadly, these are the effects most frequently forgotten or ignored.

So how do we avoid overtime?  Therein lies the ultimate dilemma: in most industries (not just interactive marketing), you can’t.

Western society, and especially North Americans, have an inherent inflexibility when it comes to altering deadlines. Even slipping as little as a few hours can cause significant issues in terms of money, and often has a ripple effect that can extend far beyond a single person. But even in situations where no dependencies exist, people are loathe to accept flexible end-dates for fear of the never-ending project.

Truth be told, I’m both against and for overtime (in that order, I might add). As a father, any time spent away from my family (including the average work day) is difficult. Working additional hours only  acerbates  the situation. As such, I avoid asking for overtime, as I cannot ask of others what I cannot ask of myself.

However, as a company man, I look to overtime to solve the inevitable problem of scheduling: somehow, a specific deadline must be met, and I know that merely adding people to a project does not allow a project to move more quickly (it can be quite the opposite). The basic formula is simple: overtime means project delivery; project delivery means happy clients; happy clients means more work; more work means more money to keep people employed.

Contradictory? Darn right, it is.

Ultimately, overtime is still a Bad Thingâ„¢ that should be reserved for critical situations. It’s a “break glass in case of fire” sort of thing that should never be wielded casually, and always treated with the utmost seriousness and respect.  And in all cases, anyone calling for overtime should recognise exactly why overtime is needed, and recognise what could have been done differently in the past to have avoided it, so the same mistake isn’t made twice.

2 Replies to “Overtime is not a solution”

  1. I totally agree. Nothing worse than working with (or on) a team that is surviving strictly on overtime miracles. My best experiences have been with teams that have had a strong culture of working really smart 9-5 and avoiding overtime like the plague.

    People underestimate the value of happy, well rested, balanced team members.

  2. AMEN!

    I remember well the shellshocked, spaced out (exhausted) crew the day after a certain big launch…… not knowing what to do with themselves. At 5pm, I remember telling one of them to go home and reintroduce himself to his wife 🙂

    Sometimes shit happens and it just needs to be dealt with, but…..

    A company that I worked for in Ottawa many, many moons ago practiced and encouraged really excessive overtime. It was considered a good thing that a couple of my coworkers were in the office working every single day for two months (both were going through relationship breakups). Of course when it came time for layoffs 6 or 8 months later – they were the first to go because “their performance was significantly diminished”. Gee – I wonder how that happened?! (they had not had vacations during the intervening time either) I guess the poetic justice is that said company went out of business several years ago.

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