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Working late, responsibly

We’ve gone through a period of time in our team telling each other not to work outside of office hours. The situation was prompted by a number of things; occasionally people staying in the office later than normal, but more frequently people penning commits, pull requests, and emails whilst at home in the evening.

From the outside looking in you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the product of us being under lots of pressure. However that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s a very relaxed team, we have sensible deadlines, and a great track record of shipping.

Obvious causes

One of the causes, as corny as it sounds, is people taking an interest and enjoyment in their field of work. It’s certainly true of myself and I daresay true of some others. I find it particularly hard to switch off and put down an interesting problem that I’ve been working on during the day. I also have periods of spare time, such as a very long commute, which affords me the extra time to work on the things that interest me.

The other is people idly checking-in from outside the office. We’ve all done it - you’ve got a spare ten minutes, flick open your work email (especially if it’s already on the phone you’re carrying), see something of interest or importance, maybe something that you’re well positioned to help out with, and so you write a reply. Chances are that the reply goes to a list and a couple of other people doing the same thing also respond.

Silent peer pressure

Now neither of those are terrible things in themselves. But what we (and myself included) failed to account for is the effect that participating in this has on the people around us. It’s a cycle that quietly and unwittingly ratchets up the pressure on our colleagues, who may either feel willingly egged-on to do the same or, much worse, unwillingly pressured into keeping pace.

If people observe others replying to email lists, pushing commits, opening pull requests, and squashing bugs late at night, then they may incorrectly conclude that they’re not pulling their weight in the team or putting in enough effort.

This is especially true of new starters, junior and senior alike, who are eager to prove their worth whilst trying to fit in to what they perceive to be the normal working pattern for a team. People often hope that they will be told what the status quo is or be notified when they’re going off track, but very rarely does this happen and even less frequently do people feel comfortable enough to ask for themselves.

Possible solutions

Reduce broadcasts

One simple solution is to just reduce the amount you broadcast while outside of office hours. By all means work, if you so wish, but don’t do anything that generates noise and makes other people aware of it. Commit, but don’t push. Review pull requests, but don’t comment. Draft emails, but don’t send. Queue it all up until the next day.

Someone pointed out that a useful side-effect of this is that you get to review your drafts the following morning before you send them. Sometimes, in the cold light of day, you may want to change your mind.

Manage expectations

This technique of reducing broadcasts is something that I’ve practised in the past, but for subtly different reasons.

In previous roles where I had no formal commitment to be on-call I was always careful not to be seen working out-of-hours in case it became the normal expectation. If I’m not being paid for it then I reserve the right to pick and choose if and when I wish to participate.

The same applies even if you are contracted to work out-of-hours. If people observe that you’re always watching and replying to your email then they will throw things your way at obscure times of the day or week and come to expect a response or resolution. If they continue to get results then the situation will escalate and it may raise pressure on the team as a whole.

Remind your colleagues

As a member of a team it’s your duty to remind your peers what the expectations of the team are. For the benefit of yourself and others.

Tell people to go home if you see them staying unnecessarily late in the office. If they have to stay late then remind them to take time off in lieu where possible. Have a quiet word with people that send email at unsociable times etc.


Own prerogative

That said, you may have noticed that I haven’t said: “just don’t do it”.

I strongly feel that it’s a person’s own prerogative about whether they choose to do work-related things in their own time. I’d certainly be a hypocrite, or sometimes quite bored, to suggest otherwise.

But you should remain sensitive of the things described above. You should also be careful not to short-circuit the normal working dynamics of the team; don’t snipe all the glamorous work, make sure you still seek input from others, and don’t generate churn that the rest of the team doesn’t have capacity to deal with.

Not enough hours in the day

It’s also really important to note that none of the advice applies if you’re just plain overworked.

If you’re working in the evenings just because you don’t get enough time during the day to do everything that you need to, then something is broken. Fix that first. The solution might be a new job.

Downtime is precious

Ultimately you should remember that downtime is precious. It’s not healthy to be in front of a computer, let alone working, all day and night. You might not be doing other people harm but you may be doing harm to yourself.

It’s often not even terribly productive to do so, even if you trick yourself into thinking that you work better late at night or for long hours. There are a couple of paragraphs in the learning strategies section of Ops School about “come back later” and “sleep on it” that summarise this better than I could.

I cannot count the number of times I’ve found the solution to a problem, or indeed discovered a whole new problem that I hadn’t previously thought about, whilst not in front of the computer but after going away and doing something else. More often than not in the shower or out walking.