"Full time" is becoming meaningless . . .

What Ever Happened to the Work Week?

by Conrad Weisert

©2004, Information Disciplines, Inc.
This article may be circulated freely, as long as the copyright credit is included.
IDI's Issue of the Month for May, 2004

The clouded crystal ball

Fifty years ago articles in popular magazines were predicting what the world would be like in the 21st century. Some of the authors' predictions have come to pass, while others remain fantasy in 2004. Many amenities we take for granted, such as ubiquitous computing and security screening, were foreseen by few authors, if any.

Almost every one of those articles, however, made the same confident prediction. The authors were in agreement that:

People are going to have so much leisure time, that one of society's biggest challenges will be figuring out how to keep citizens occupied.

When we come across those old predictions today we're amused and frustrated. Despite all our labor-saving conveniences, most of us are putting in longer and longer hours at work. Most mothers now work full-time. Holding two or even three jobs is no longer unusual. Americans today have less leisure time than Americans of the 1950's.

Advertising full-time jobs

Recruiting ads in American newspapers and trade journals often specify not only the number of hours but also, perhaps to comply with Labor Department standards, the specific hours. Here are two examples from the April 26 Network World:
. . . 40 hrs/wk. 8am - 5 pm . . . . . . 40 hrs/wk. (9:00 - 5:00) . . .

We may wonder how both of the above schedules add up to the same weekly total; do people in the second organization skip lunch? In both cases the employer organization went out of its way to specify specific hours. And in both cases those hours may have very little relationship to what the organization will actually expect of its employees.

Downsizing the professional staff

Under pressure to reduce costs many organizations have been shedding employees. They may call it "downsizing". In all too many cases, however, the staff gets downsized but the commitments don't. The people who remain have to take up much of the workload of the people who are gone.

I know of colleagues who are putting in 60 or more hours every week. Some of them claim to be unable to take time to meet for lunch near their offices. They're unable to enjoy vacations, recreation, family activities, and professional society meetings. They have no time to attend conferences or take courses to update their skills. They willingly keep working long hours, however, because they're glad to have any job today.

Deadlines and unforeseen emergencies

Every computing professional has at some time participated in a project that fell seriously behind schedule. The project may have encountered some unforeseeable setback or it may be driven by some uncontrollable (but reasonable) deadline.

In such situations we professionals are willing to expend extra energy. Programmers may put in all nighters without complaint, especially in the late stages of system testing and installation. We don't enjoy the pressure and the fatigue, but we do what's necessary to meet our commitments.

Overcommitment and chronic emergencies

Eventually such projects come to an end, whether successful or not. In a well-managed organization the project team members then get thanked for their special effort, take some compensatory time off, and return to work on their next normal project.

Unfortunately, that's not what's happening today in many organizations. That next project turns out to be already "behind schedule", and there's little if any compensatory time off before we're putting in 60-hour weeks again. There's no such thing in some organizations as a "normal" project. The professional staff in such organizations is chronically overworked with little prospect of relief, and management comes to depend on superhuman efforts.

Excuses and fallacies

Old fashioned theory-X managers sometimes explain that we have to drive our people hard or we won't get a fair day's work out of them. They set unrealistic "deadlines" not to meet some external or uncotrollable event, but arbitrarily in order to motivate the staff to work harder.

Younger managers may offer a more modern justification: so called Internet time. We're up against cutthroat competition to be first with some new product or service. If we miss our chance by even a couple of months, they claim, we'll have missed an opportunity forever. We not only have to overwork our people to beat the competition to the marketplace, but must also take shortcuts that jeopardize the reliability and maintainability of our end product.

Those arguments are fallacious.

Experience shows that creative people do not sustain an intensive high-pressure schedule week after week without suffering "burn out". After putting in a lot of overtime, they become less productive. They make mistakes, not only minor coding errors but failure to discern fundamental design choices. Under pressure they make "symptomatic fixes" to get beyond a half-diagnosed bug. They may bypass critical unit testing disciplines.

Fred Brooks is well known for his law:
"Adding manpower to a late project makes it later."
-- Frederick P. Brooks, jr., The Mythical Man-Month anniversary edition, 1995, Addison-Wesley, ISBN 0-201-83595-9, p. 25

Dr. Brooks was talking about adding more people to a project team, but that same principle applies even more to piling more hours on the staff members who are already working full-time.

We know that software developers exhibit a huge range in both productivity and quality. (See discussion of offshore development contracts.) If you're a manager who's desperate to compress the schedule for releasing some new software, you'll do far better to work top performers normal hours than to drive average performers beyond their endurance. Let your staff know that you may occasionally expect unusual effort in a bona fide emergency. But always base your time and cost estimates for your organization's normal projects on the standard 40-hour full time staff participation.

Software design and development is a creative, intellectually challenging, and often enjoyable activity. You may find your best people around the office well into the evening, not because of deadline pressure but because they're working on an interesting problem. Sometimes it's not work; it's fun.

An American problem?

The foregoing discussion describes situations common in American organizations, especially private-sector corporations. Other cultures may take a different view or be subject to more stringent labor laws. Let me know of your experiences.

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Last modified May 1, 2004