When heavy overtime means diminished returns

Dealing with the inevitable diminished productivity that comes when heavy overtime is required.
Written by Tom Mochal, Contributor
The dilemma
Meg was still a few weeks away from finishing her project to implement a construction cost-estimating package for the facilities department. The project had been underestimated, and some previous scope changes had not been properly managed. The results were a project significantly over its timeline and an unhappy client.

I began with an open-ended question: “Meg, can you see the light at the end of the tunnel?”

“Yes, I think we can,” she said. “We are into the testing process, but we are still making slow progress. Our current implementation date is three weeks out.”

“That’s not too far off,” I said. “Do you feel comfortable that you can wrap everything up by then?”

Meg thought for a second: “Yes and no. It seems like that is plenty of time, but we have been consistently missing our dates for the past month. We are working all kinds of hours, but we are just not making the progress I would expect.”

We discussed this for a few minutes. It turned out that the team members had been working 60 hours a week for the past month.

“If you are working a lot of hours, is morale holding up?” I asked.

“Not really,” she said. “I just think people want to get this project finished and move on to something else.”

“How about you?” I asked again. “How are you holding up?”

I knew the answer before Meg responded: “I’m tired.”

Mentor advice
Many of you have probably been on troubled projects that required team members to put in as many hours as it took to get the job done. Sometimes, these projects are considered a rite of passage. Depending on how management and the team respond, the situation can create a shared feeling of sacrifice and camaraderie. It can also create a lot of complaining, moaning, and gnashing of teeth.

If you were lucky, the heavy hours you had to work were only temporary. If not, this may have lasted for months. One thing is certain: When you work heavy overtime (paid or unpaid), you’re not as productive on an hour-by-hour basis as you are when you are refreshed and motivated. As the value of each extra hour of work diminishes incrementally over time, the team will reach a point where they’ll actually be more productive by working fewer hours, not more.

While I would like to be a “people guy” and say that Meg should cut out the overtime, that won’t help her get the work completed in the next three weeks. At the same time, based on Meg’s own words, they’re hitting the point of diminishing returns. They’re not meeting the dates she expects, probably because the 60 hours a week they are working are not as productive as they would be if the hours were spread over regular eight-hour days. Meg also stated that she’s tired, and I’m sure the rest of the team is, as well.

However, now may not be the time to let up, if it’s true that only three weeks are left. Reducing hours now may mean that the project will take an extra week or two, which no one wants. Meg should make an effort to improve morale if possible without increasing the hours. Here are some suggestions:

  • Give team members a day off work to get them temporarily recharged.
  • Allow them to take their spouse/family to dinner on the company.
  • Provide donuts/pastries in the morning and cookies in the afternoon.
  • Arrange for personal notes of thanks from the sponsor or high-level management.
  • Arrange an afternoon movie for the project team.
  • Arrange for bonus pay after the project is completed.
  • Give team members extra comp time after the project is completed.
  • Allow people to take short naps if they’re fatigued.
  • Bring in a masseuse to provide back massages.
  • Lastly, if gifts are given, look for something personal, if possible. For example, I once gave a book on horses to a horse lover, a cup-final ticket to a soccer fan, and a vintage bottle of wine to a wine connoisseur.

Bottom line
In the best-case scenario, the team will pull together and see the project to completion. After that, Meg should make sure her people get some comp time off to recharge for the next challenge, and then vow to not end up in this situation again.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project management and life-cycle skills. He's also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.

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