Work-Life Balance Meets Reality

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In reading Lynda Bourne's post, Hey Boss, What About Work-Life Balance?, I'm reminded of a Dilbert cartoon where the employees have been told that they must pick three benefits/activities from the following list:

•    Work
•    Paid Time Off
•    Family
•    Health
•    Hygiene
•    Hobby
•    School
•    Sleep
•    Social Outings

Management then says the first two things have to be work and paid time off, leaving employees to pick only one more.

Lynda's post also reminds me of an infamous initiative at my office that we shall call Project S. Everyone knew we under-bid on it the project, and to make up the gap, team members were required to put in 10 hours of unpaid overtime.

As time passed, burnout mounted and the ever-increasing turnover of employees began to grab even the attention of the division president.

Later I was told by a colleague on the project the project manager had been re-assigned. And a company memo announced that all overtime needs had to be approved at the executive management level to ensure proper work-life balance for the long-term health of our employees.

So in this example, a leadership decision promoted a balanced work-life culture, but what happens when the front-line project managers are practicing something else?

In a way, mandating unpaid overtime is a means to accomplish a project goal. Would you agree?
Posted by Neal Shen on: March 26, 2010 04:27 PM | Permalink


Dmitri Ivanenko
Interesting experience noted. I agree that there are occurrences and many of them in the workforce where team members are asked to put in overtime. I find that asking people to work without pay is not appropriate. Focus has to be on having a good project management discipline and practice, and not on the ways of getting more for less from the team: it all costs a lot more in the long run and impacts multiple areas of the organization. The time to negotiate the terms of employment/contract is at the contract negotiation time or when the team is recruited for the project, just like when we negotiate a contract with a vendor. We mention what is required, reach agreement and then do the work. Project managers, in my view, should simply abide by the organizational rules, policies and standards, use their PM knowledge and experience and not look for "creative" ways to cover up inefficiencies in the areas of project planning or controlling and monitoring at a cost that is not up to them to decide on.

Bernard Roduit
No, overtime can be the result of bad estimates of scope, changes, risks, etc. and even the most efficient team cannot "compensate" for it. Project managers and sponsor(s) shall own the responsibility and the lessons learned applied in future projects.

When team would agree to take the challenge and work overtime, they are entitled to some form of compensation or pay. This is one of the reason we shall build reserves in the plans. In my opinion, it's not the team that shall "compensate" for weaknesses in the plans or the process, even when efficiency can be questioned.

As project managers, we have a tendency to believe the plan is the project. I guess reality can be (and often is) different in "most of the projects, most of the time". Flexibility and overtime are part of the game (and can even be fun), however never at people personal expenses, as motivation may disappear very quickly.

I'm looking forward for other views on this controversial challenge.

Maria Pegkou, MSc, PMP
I believe that overtimes are acceptable only if they are occasional and up to a certain extend. Such overtimes will compensate for the low productivity days of the employees. In case overtimes are a result of bad planning then the employees are somehow forced to be working extended hours for a long period to meet the unrealistic deadlines; this is inappropriate, regardless of whether they are paid or not. Regular long work hours have negative effects in the employees' productivity, health and personal lives.

Norman Kao
I agree with Bernard’s point – “Flexibility and overtime are part of the game (and can even be fun), however never at people personal expenses, as motivation may disappear very quickly.â€쳌 And this is mostly true for IT workers as long as they are pursuing goal-oriented working model.

Any experienced project manager can easily come up with a long list of reasons that cause project team to work overtime, such as unrealistic schedule, short of resources, unplanned risks, wrong estimation, out of controlled change requests, lack of proper skills or tools, …, etc.

Resolution toward this overtime issue can be (1) identify and eliminate the root cause(s) if possible, (2) acknowledge team’s efforts with certain ways of incentive or award, (3) document the lesson learned and make the best to prevent from happening again.

Sometimes, under strong competition situation, the management and the project manager have to make difficult decisions to win the business/project so as to meet company business goals and keep the project team from dismissal. In this case, the management and the project manager should demonstrate their leadership and promote team morale with the suitable means or replace some of the non-core team members with cost-effective resources which may include off-shore delivery or qualified partners or contractors.

I am not a fan of asking for over time from employees either. No one wants to give up an evening or a weekend but there are circumstances where this will occur that has nothing to do with poor planning or estimating.

When regulatory bodies make changes to legislation that mandates change to company policies sometimes you don't have an option but to put in that extra time or face significant financial penalties.

We employed a follow the sun methodology but unfortunately we still had to put in extra time on the weekend to meet the mandated deadline. It was an intense 2 months but we met the deadline.

A complaint was lodged with the regulatory body indicating that the delayed release of the announcement of the change without moving the implementation date was unacceptable but this was largely ignored.

In this situation, we really didn't have an option but to put in extra time. We gave the employees banked time against the over time and while not ideal, this was the best that we could do given the specific circumstances.

Again, this was a result of extenuating circumstances and not a result of poor planning, risk or scope management.

Dorothy Hewitt-Sanchez
In my opinion, in this case the project manager did not make an acceptable decision by overworking team members. Being overworked and not paid for the work can be detrimental in so many ways. Some ways include:

• Can lead to lower team morale
• Team members become easily annoyed and agitated
• Can lead to less attention to details
• Quality can be overlooked or become an after thought
• High turnover ( as revealed from the article)

Maybe the project manager did not have a project management plan in place. The project management plan would have included time management.

The activity sequence would have shown the activities required and the milestones. The project schedule should have had a critical path analysis to calculate the earliest/latest start and finish dates. With the start and finish dates determined, the project manager would be able to see where to apply lead or lag time to the project schedule. Through careful schedule control, the project manager would have been able to determine if the project needed resource leveling and schedule compression.

This could be one of the reasons the program manager was re-assigned.

Kim Wendland
In my experience as a project/program manager, I've come to laugh about the very phrase: work-life balance because work-life balance = no life.

What's even more annoying to me about this perspective is that I normally loathe cynicism and sarcasm.

Mike Caddell, PMP, CSM
Mandating overtime might appear to be a means to accomplish a project goal, however unless the situation is "life or death," mandatory overtime will rarely have a positive impact and will do more harm than good.

In addition to the burnout and low morale mentioned here, in situations such as these other negative effects include:

1) The quality of work typically degrades, resulting in more work to fix those problems, creating to a vicious circle (more problems = more work).

2) Most organizations won't remember that Project S was underbid and are more likely to use Project S as a historical reference increasing the probability of repeating the same underbid error

IMHO — it is wrong and immoral to compensate for the organization's presumably avoidable mistake — underbidding the project — by mandating significant overtime for the project team.

If this were a "life or death" situation where the company would go out of business without that project and the only way to get the project is to underbid it, the company's leadership could have explained the situation to the team and sought a combination of creative solutions and a commitment to extra work **before** bidding.

This would likely have resulted in the team buying into the underbid and created an esprit de corp that would help carry the project to a successful conclusion - and the team would have bought into the project's need for extra work before it started!

In a parallel dimension, imagine this company had adopted the agile philosophy and practices — the probability of the project being underbid is dramatically lower because the provider and customer are working hand-in-hand throughout the project and the bid includes adequate buffers if FFP contracts are necessary!

Bruce Williams, PMP
Are you crazy? It's never appropriate to ask team members to work unpaid overtime! Can you ever imagine a time when you would ask a vendor to do unpaid work? Would you call your plumber up and say "Hey, I kinda under budgeted this month, but could you come over and fix my faucet for free?". If you ARE one of the kind of people who does this, then give your head a shake!!

Unpaid work is called volunteering, and if a team member volunteers to do unpaid work then I would set tight limits on it to ensure he or she went home and spent time with their family.

Fix the process, not kill the employees!

Tim Costanzo
As I am a technical professional I understand that sometimes there is a need for overtime. When it becomes the norm you are not properly planning. Your staff’s moral will erode over time and productivity will suffer.

There should be no "unpaid" overtime.

Even if your staff is salaried you need to reward their efforts. Make sure that they know that the extra effort is appreciated and leads to the overall success of the project.

Gabino Carballo
I have done lots of overtime in my working life and I find that the only acceptable kind is that devoted to learning new skills and mastering new techniques in a challenging project that opens up new opportunities for those involved.

Any other kind of overtime, either be compensating for low productivity or making up lost time elsewhere (or even compensating for lack of resources) amounts to nothing more than subsidizing people's profits with your own life and fostering inefficiency.

Why would any businesses improve their procedures if they knew that any staff is available any time for zero money?

Overtime amounts to incompetence, management incompetence. That's all about it, the sooner we accept this fact, the sooner we will all get home and live better for the same amount of money.

Lee Folino, PMP
This is a tricky subject. If I understand correctly, technically there is no such thing as "overtime" for exempt employees. Exempt employees are expected to do the job for which they were hired and produce results, regardless of how many hours they work.

My understanding is that a company may require full-time exempt employees to work a minimum of 40 hours as a general rule, which implies that is the expectation for hours worked and seems to contradict the idea that the number of hours worked are irrelevant. Exempt employees tend to get disgruntled when they consistently have to work more hours to get their work done; however, my understanding is that employers have the right to expect them to do so.

I think that good managers and project managers use wisdom and discretion to determine when it makes sense to "push for more." In today's fast-paced, high-pressure world, allowing employees to have relatively predictable work hours so that they have time to enjoy their lives outside of work can promote loyalty to their employers and higher productivity during regular work hours. And when the occasional "spike" requires extra hours, employees will be more willing to give.

Jan Pol PMP
As a project manager in a strong matrix environment, let me offer another point of view which shifts the focus from the unpaid project contributor, as discussed by many here, to the actual impact of project accounting (PM) and financial accounting (CFO).

While unpaid overtime is beneficial to get back on schedule, it shouldn't favor the project financials (project accounting). The overtime-hours spent to complete the work-packages (through time-writing) should still be multiplied against an hourly rate and booked as actual cost so earned value can be properly reported, and the project future historical records do not get falsely represented when similar follow-up projects use these historical records for cost estimating and budget development.

So, the project manager and team see no financial benefit at the project level, but the CFO/accountant does see a temporary favorable variance at the accounting level. Morale, motivation, employee engagement and such are therefore for all in management positions to worry about.

In the end, we should avoid that some project managers are trying to be clever by ONLY using overtime hours to start, execute and complete their projects thinking that zero cost will be incurred to their projects and can collect "a job well done" by their sponsors.

In the end we should avoid that some Project Managers are trying to be clever by ONLY using over-time hours to start, execute and complete their projects thinking that zero cost will be incurred to their projects and can collect "a job well done" by their sponsors :-)

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