Voluntary overtime

Voluntary Overtime is the practice of providing developers with meaningful work and with other contributors to internal motivation so that they will want to work more than they are required to.

The extra hours provide a direct productivity books and the extra motivation gives developers an edge that transfers to their regular work hours.

Moderate, voluntary overtime can be used in virtually any environment but its application is limited by the fact that both it and excessive, mandatory overtime are already in widespread use.


  • Potential reduction from nominal schedule: Good
  • Improvement in progress visibility:  None
  • Effect on schedule risk:  Increased Risk
  • Chance of first-time success:  Fair
  • Chance of long-term success:  Very Good

Major Risks

  • Schedule penalties resulting from excessive schedule pressure and excessive overtime
  • Reduced capacity to respond to emergency need for still more hours

Major Interaction and Trade-Offs

  • Requires use of sincere and non-manipulative motivational practices
  • Usually required as support for Miniature Milestones, incremental lifecycle models, Timebox Development – any development practices that make use of frequent deadlines

Use a developer-pull approach rather than a leader-push approach

Trying to to motivate developers can be like trying to push on a rope – we would be better off pulling on the other end. Gerald Weinberg points out that one of the best known results of motivation research is that increasing the driving force first increases performance to a maximum – and then drives it to zero (Weinberg 1971).

He says that the rapid falloff in performance is especially observable in complex tasks such as software development: “Pressing the programmer for rapid elimination of a bug may turn out to be the worst possible strategy – but it is by far the most common.”

When motivation is low, it also does not matter how much time people spend at the office. We wont get more than 40 hours of work from them. They will put in time just to keep up appearances or to avoid feeling bad about not meeting they deadlines.

Dont require overtime; it will produce less total output!

A possible objection:

“Sure, motivation decreases as we crank up the overtime. But the developers will be working more hours, so on balance the extra time will more than make up for the loss in motivation. Their total output will still be greater.”

To understand the flaw in this argument, understand these three points:

  • Most studies have shown that motivation is a stringer influence on productivity than any other factor (Boehm 1981)
  • Pushing developers when they are already motivated causes a sharp decline in motivation (Weinberg 1971)
  • The average developer is already working at close to the maximum level of motivation (Jones 1991)

Beware of too much overtime, regardless of the reason

By far the greatest problem associated with moderate overtime is the tendency to drift into excessive overtime. That is a systematic problem with any kind of overtime, voluntary or mandatory.

It does not seem to matter whether the pressure to work massive overtime comes from within or without, excessive overtime and the excessive schedule pressure that accompanies it lead to the following schedule problems:

  • Increased number of defects
  • Increased incentive to take unwise risks
  • Reduced creativity
  • Increased burnout
  • Increased turnover
  • Reduced time for self-education and organizational improvement
  • Reduced productivity