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Off-Hours Work: A Guide For Managers

If you work in software development or IT long enough eventually you're going to find yourself in a situation where you have to work during off-hours; it's just the nature of the job and can happen for a variety of reasons like: hardware failure, a new client is brought on that spikes CPU or bandwidth, or maybe you're just really behind schedule and need to catch up.

It's happened to me a few times in my career (and will happen again, no doubt), and after the most recent occurrence I started thinking about the best ways to deal with the situation. Today I'll share how I think managers should approach off-hours work.

Set expectations
You don't always have the luxury of time at your disposal (e.g. when hardware fails), but when you do the more advance notice you can give people so they can make plans the better. If you're telling people they need to work outside of normal hours then level with them, let them know what you expect, and be honest about it. Make sure they know that you realize the circumstances aren't ideal and appreciate their help. "Look, I know you don't want to work on Saturday, and neither do I, but we need to meet the commitments we've made. I need everyone here on Saturday from 9 AM until at least 5, maybe later if we're not done" will go over a lot better than "Be here at 9 AM Saturday and I don't want to hear any excuses!". Be sure to deliver the message in person or by phone, not by email.

Take care of people
If people are giving up their personal time for work you need to take care of them. Provide breakfast\lunch\dinner if they're working through those hours (and tell them in advance that you've got that covered). Make sure coffee\sodas\snacks are available. If the dress code is usually business casual then let everyone wear shorts to work if they want to. If everyone feels comfortable they'll be more productive and less hung up on the fact that they're working when they'd rather be somewhere else.

On the other hand, if people feel like you're forcing work out of them without concern for their well being you're not only going to have a bunch of unhappy people to deal with but you may end up causing long term damage to your credibility\working relationship with them. Reasonable people will only put up with that kind of treatment for so long before they move on.

Focus on the task at hand
The last thing people need is you standing over their shoulder saying "WTF" or to see finger pointing and hear blame. Likewise avoid the temptation to get distracted by talking about what you're going to do to keep from getting into the same situation again. Save all that for a post-mortem when you're back in the office during normal hours. People will be much happier if you help them finish what they came in to do so they can get back to whatever they really wanted to be doing in the first place.

Don't ask your team to do anything you wouldn't do yourself
I once had a manager tell me at 2 PM that I had to stay that evening to do a release to production. It was something he knew about for a week but didn't tell me about until that day. To add insult to injury, while I stayed until 2 AM to get the work done, he went home. He lost a measure of my respect that day that he never gained back. Don't be that manager – if you're going to ask your team to work during off-hours, be prepared to come in too.

The Big Picture
You've called in your team because you need something done that can't wait until everybody is back in the office during normal hours. You're asking them to make exceptions so be prepared to make a few yourself. If you handle the situation right at worst you've got some slightly unhappy but understanding team members. Handle it poorly and you'll likely be dealing with more problems than you started with. Seems like no-brainer stuff, right? Amazingly, some managers don't get it. On the other hand, neither do some employees. In my next post I'll flip the coin and talk about how I think about how they should deal with having to work during off-hours.


Posted by Yogeesha on 30 September 2009

Nice article

Posted by Yogeesha on 30 September 2009

Nice article

Posted by Steve Jones on 30 September 2009

Excellent points. I'd add as well if it's a disaster, make sure you send someone home that can come back later to relieve people if needed. I've seen managers keep the whole staff late into the night, or even through the night and next day. Everyone burns out in that case. Make sure you have some coverage if things take longer than expected.

and rotate the people that have to stay/get to leave.

Posted by Gary Varga on 2 October 2009

Steve has mentioned the validity of staff rotation. Another point is that in a good team everyone gets annoyed at the manager who demands the whole team is present when they aren't needed. Most would rather see a colleague walking out the door knowing that next time it may be their turn to walk away. Some even like staying and will do coffee runs just because that's what they are like - best managers let people be people!!!

Posted by Carl Pritchard on 2 October 2009

Great article - should be read by managers in many fields.

I have been on both sides of the scenario and can definitely say that involvement of management is important. Not only does it gain respect (and real benefit for both the next time it occurs and for the long term).

Another extension of this is what the manager does. Obviously this is guided by skills levels but ideally the manager to step back and manage - but this doesn't just include the task at hand but also moral and welfare. Just remembering to ensure food around is great - actually going to the drive in a getting it is even better. Make the coffee, show you are able to provide moral and welfare, not just see it happens.

Sometime people (especially with families - and these are more likely to be senior) will want to take some time out. If you are a manager and are planning to only be there part of the time then make sure you are there at the beginning and the end. Think like a sailor - the last one out is the captain!!

Posted by K on 2 October 2009

The piece about not asking someone to do something you wouldn't do hits home for me.  Don't ask me to stay up all night to fix something for a colleague overseas, then expect me to be at work all the next day, when you wouldn't do it.

Also, Carl's comment about people wanting to take time out bugged me a little.  Not all senior people have families, but we still have lives and don't want to work 24/7 either.  Not trying to start an argument here, just wanted to gently make that point.

Posted by Ian Massi on 2 October 2009

Excellent write up!  I can think of a couple more points to add:

1) Make sure you have only the right people there.  I was asked to stick around during an implementation and wait while the Oracle team figured out what was wrong with their code.  Had absolutely nothing to do with SQL Server.  I made my case and went home, but at my annual review apparently the manager running the implementation (not my manager) was very displeased that I didn't want to stick around and do nothing for 19 hours straight on a Saturday/Sunday and then several more hours on the Sunday again.  I lost quite a bit of respect for that manager.

2) If people can work remotely, or you just need them to be "available" to come in, let them.  I think most people would rather work from home after hours.  If you just need your DBA to run a job, do a backup, or validate something quick and if he/she can do it from home then there's no reason that he/she needs to come in.

I think both those things happen when a manager gets stressed over something important happening and feels better flexing his management muscles with some "all hands on deck" pseudo-leadership bravado.  All it really demonstrates personal insecurity and is a waste of resources.

Posted by Bob Lee on 2 October 2009

If you're the manager keep an eye on your people and don't be afraid to notice when that glazed look replaces the brilliant light in your worker's eyes.  Sometimes it's better to let by gones be gone long enough to get refreshed and come back at a task when alert and invigorated instead of cleaning up a mess caused by someone so exhausted they fell asleep at the wheel.  After working nearly 96 hours strait once for a client one long weekend back in 1993, the client came in on Tuesday and told me that at the root of things they are all just 1's and 0's and there were lot's of them but only one of me.

In small shops being able to relieve someone may not be possible. Sometimes disasters happen and when they do there is an impact. But the impact should minimized to your people as well as the business.

Posted by -- Cranfield on 2 October 2009

We're getting ready for a big release tonight where we'll be providing Oracle and SQL support 24x7 in shifts.

Oracle DBA1 on the night shift has had the whole day off to relax. The Oracle DBA2 who starts the next shift at 5am tomorrow is at work today but will be checking into a hotel after work so he doesn't have to worry about the 2 hour commute to get to work tomorrow. When Oracle DBA1 comes off shift tomorrow at 5am she has the option of taking a cab home or going to crash in a hotel room nearby in case she thinks she'll be needed again.

The SQL Server DBA is working double shifts but is only providing on-call support so will be working from home the whole weekend. Agreed upon beforehand.

As well as the DBA there will be a bunch of other support staff onsite, syadmins, PMs etc all offered the same taxicab, hotel etc should things go t*ts up.

Food is very important!  Pizza, Fried chicken or whatever they desire all ordered beforehand by PMs according to individual tastes.

Also, if the support team are spread out in the building or in remote sites then we need frequent updates giving status of the where we are in the progress of the work schedule.

Posted by -- Cranfield on 2 October 2009

Did anyone mention compensation?  You need a generous weekend work rate or time off in lieu if you expect motivated after hours or weekend workers.

Posted by Kenneth Wymore on 2 October 2009

Nice article. It's amazing what a little compassion can do in these situations. I have had late nights where pizza, soda and a thanks were good enough for me.

Posted by Satheesh Kumar on 5 October 2009

Excellent article.  I had spent lot of sleepless nights and contributed my weekends without any of the above.  But I should not do this mistake to my team members.  All points are worth noting and to implement.

Posted by Rick Coffman on 26 October 2009

Good luck with all this, folks.  I'm a forty-year IT vet, with 11 years of management - years ago before I got too smart to stay a manager.  After retiring from my last employer, I was asked to come back as a contractor. I can say that in the eleven years as a manager, I never went home before my people.  Now I can also say that it is extremely rare that a company manager is around when we are doing critical issues, mainly because they have 'managed' us to death with meeting after meeting and question after question to which they don't understand the answer anyway.  Our contract company managers are much more present and attentive that the company.

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