Work Sustainable Hours

As an important deadline approach, the teams enter in an uproar. There are suddenly the double of User Stories to be delivered in a sprint, much more than they are able to work on, and the only solution is to work (many) extra hours.

Unfortunately, this is a common scenario and it does not matter the methodology the company is using: be it scrum, kanban, waterfall or any other you can name it, there are stressful periods where everybody works like crazy to deliver something on time. But why? Does it have anything to do with how things are planned? Or maybe the schedule of the deadlines is not taking anything into consideration but guesswork and whimsical desires?

There is a vast literature on this subject and the objective of this post is not to dwell too long on the reasons behind the problem, but to scratch the surface of the causes and to dig a little bit on the consequences of the extra burden laid on the teams’ shoulders.

The more work hours, the more we get tired and stressed. We suddenly replace quality time with our families and friends or the free time we might enjoy spending by ourselves with in-a-hurry tasks that are more prone to errors each passing minute. We start to commit mistakes we would never make and have to compensate the problem with even more hours to fix things up. When we are tired and under pressure, anything, no matter how small, bothers us to an incredible extent. Does someone took a cup of coffee and did not invite you? Well, you instantly feel the person hates you or maybe that not everyone is taking the deadline seriously enough.

And this is a huge problem. All the work during the past months to make the company a good place to work and to ensure the climate is comforting and inviting are thrown away. People are at a loss. Even if the management team is aware of the problem and worried that people may be working too many hours, there is nothing they can do to alleviate the pressure because, well, there is no magic wand: to deliver on time this is the only solution.

However, if we carefully look in retrospect, we may find that we wasted many hours on things that were not important. Maybe on meetings that were either meaningless or not important to everyone invited to attend it. It is difficult to see how important those wasted hours are until the deadline approaches and our plates are too full to be dealt with properly.

Another ghost that haunts each and every team is the uncountable interruptions we suffer during a normal work day. Have you ever felt, at the end of the day, that you accomplished nothing? It is necessary a whole lot of interruptions to waste 8 long hours, be lo and behold! Some people start to move their hours (if the company is flexible enough) to make sure there is no one else in the office while he/she works, like very early in the morning or late at night. It feels like this is the only way to sit down and concentrate enough to go through a task. To developers this is a palpable nightmare, it is impossible to work on the necessary logic and abstractions if you are never able to think one step at a time without having to start things over and over again. The result? No-so-good code that will have to be fixed in extra hours when the deadline approaches.

Sometimes, the communication tools are overwhelming. There are dozens of emails popping up your mailbox each hour and you have to check the messages on slack/hipchat/campfire or whatever official communication tools your company uses (and dare to try turning them off to see people really upset with you because you are not giving them the necessary attention, not caring enough with the company’s communication as a whole!). Managers use to expect you to know everything that is happening around, casually forgetting how time-consuming it may be to gather and process all that information, even those that will make no difference in the tasks you are supposed to deliver.

Open offices have been the fashion for a while even though many articles (check the New Yorker or the Forbes) prove that they are inherently bad for our cognitive functions. These offices force the workers to multitask, which decreases not only the performance but also the quality of what is being done, and gives a considerable boost on the stress level. It is once again the ode to extroversion, as if introversion was a disease that must be controlled. Take a peek at Susan Cain’s work at your own risk.

And this is not something hard to see. If you are supposed to read a book, do you look for a quiet place or one where people will be talking (unrelated things) all around you and interrupting you every now and again? Why we think it is a totally different matter when it comes to choosing a place to work is a deep mystery to me.

Another important issue is how much rework was done in the previous weeks before the delivery pressure turned up. To work on something that is not completely defined just to change it again in the near future is a waste of time, it is always better to focus on things that can deliver value quickly than to keep chasing the tail and coming back to the same task again and again. Also, are we sure we worked on the most valuable features? Prioritize is not as clear a task as it may seem at first glance, and it is one of the most important steps to give when planning the next sprint (or a work period, if you are not using scrum).

The point is, we do not need more hours, we need better hours.

A team under pressure and working too much will start cutting important steps in the process. To test your code? Meh, we can do it later (although we never come back to do it). Maybe this feature does not need a code review, or the quality is not ideal but let’s move on because we do not have time to do it right. However, think about this: if those things are not important, why are we doing them in the first place? This chaotic run towards an evil delivery date will accomplish nothing but to decrease the morale and the quality of the team’s job, and there is never time to go back and fix the not-so-great things that were done. Soon or later everyone will pay the bill, taxes included. There is a risk people will start thinking if that is such a great place to work in the first place, not to mention that a mutual hatred against other coworkers may flare up, and how do you think this will affect the work when the deadline is finally defeated?

Cut off the interruptions. Plan features accordingly. Work on things only when they are properly defined and are less likely to change in the near future. Avoid useless meetings. Find a place where you can focus on your work. Achieving all these things seems like chasing the holy grail, but let’s not turn it into an epic Arthurian tale: work on an issue at a time, and, who knows? Maybe things will improve considerably faster than you can imagine.