The myth that voluntary overtime is commendable

I was chatting to a friend last night, he is a manager of an IT department and I used to manage a software department before I became a Scrum Master so we tend to talk a lot about management techniques and especially how a lot of the successful traditional techniques map to Scrum. 

It is performance review time and the topic of conversation got around to a frustrating belief by some staff that working long hours without being asked is something that should have an implied reward.

I can’t speak for all managers, but for the two of us I can say that we consider it to be the opposite, when someone works late on a regular basis without being asked, we see that as a red-flag. Certainly not to be commended and very likely a sign of problems.

I used to pride myself on being a good manager, I felt I was fair and sought to do what was best for my employees and the business, sometimes it was a fine line and often not easy. But one of my strongest principles was to be fair. I would never assign someone more work than I felt they could handle (that is not to say I didn’t seek to challenge them), I would always check they felt it was fair and I would always say very clearly that they should come back to me if they had problems, and I would review on a regular basis usually weekly.

As a Scrum Master the roles are reversed, the team tell me what they feel they can commit to and they review with each other on a regular basis (at the daily stand-up) and keep a track with a burndown chart.

So in either of these scenarios is there scope for voluntary unpaid unrequested overtime? (The answer is No)   In the case of assigned work if you cannot get it done in the allotted time then it is a failure of management – either I have incorrectly assessed the amount of work or I have misjudged the individuals capability to do it, and unless I have opportunity to be aware of that I cannot correct it and the cycle will repeat. The same is true in Scrum, the model is built on empirical evidence, if your estimates are low you learn and adjust next time, working extra to meet a commitment hides problems and perpetuates failing cycles, it also causes imbalance in the team, makes pair programming difficult and sends mixed messages to others. Very simply as a manager or a Scrum Team you cannot fix a problem you don’t know about, and commitments are achieved as a team.

So should you reward someone for working late, for their dedication and loyalty? or should they be reprimanded for their lack of transparency, their lack of courage in challenging an inaccurate estimate, their failure to communicate an excessive workload or lack of knowledge/training/understanding to achieve the objective?

If I ask you to work overtime I will do so with a very heavy heart, I know that it is not good for you, or the business and any gain is short-lived. It will only be in exceptional circumstances. So if you do overtime which conflicts with our team plans or expectations please don’t expect to be rewarded. That may sound harsh but I value communication far more than you giving extra to offset a failing elsewhere.


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