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I am a manager at a mid-sized (~100 employee) software company. We are fortunate to attract many employees for whom coding is their one true passion, and our products are cool enough to them that they genuinely enjoy hacking on work-related code outside of normal working hours.

There is no overt pressure or obligation to work extra (we set deadlines conservatively, not assuming that many employees are going to work above-and-beyond, and have explicitly banned after-hours email/communication), and much of the extra work is clearly done just for fun (e.g. someone learned a new framework for fun in their spare time and ported some of our existing code to it, which dramatically improved performance).

Naturally, employees who live and breathe code 24/7 (the “enthusiasts”) are a lot more productive than employees for whom the job is just a paycheck (the “9-5ers”), and thus the enthusiasts advance in the company a lot more quickly than the 9-5ers. The latter have complained that our company suffers from a culture of overwork, and that the only way to get promoted is to basically live for your job. Our target promotion schedule is well within industry norms (2-3 years between title bumps), but many of the enthusiasts manage to advance far more quickly (e.g. one exceptional person went from junior engineer to principal engineer in 4 years, which amounts to 1 title bump per year).

What should be done to convince the 9-5ers that the current incentive structure is fair, and is not overwork? It has been pointed out that our engineering workforce is overwhelmingly (~70%) male in large part because the enthusiast mentality is not compatible with childcare obligations, which unfortunately fall disproportionately on women, so making 9-5ers happier at the company would go a long way towards evening the gender imbalance. (We do offer 6 months of parental leave, and there are proposals to increase that to a full year.)

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    Are you asking for advice on how to convince non-overtime workers the current set up is fair or for advice on how to change things so that overtime and non-overtime employees are advancing at a similar rate?
    – BSMP
    Apr 17 at 0:58
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    @BSMP the former: we want to convince the 9-5ers that the current incentive structure is fair, and is not overwork. We don't want to punish people for being passionate about their work, which changing the incentive structure would effectively result in. Apr 17 at 3:08
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    Are your non-overtime workers actually getting promoted on the target schedule of 2-3 years or does it take longer? How long does it actually take to get promoted if you don't work overtime? And how much overtime does one generally have to work to get promoted in less than 2 years?
    – BSMP
    Apr 17 at 5:42
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    How do you know that those who are doing more than 9-5 are actually working extra hours because they cant get their work done? And are these hours productive or is it just presentism. Apr 17 at 18:20

11 Answers 11

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What should be done to convince the 9-5ers that the current incentive structure is fair, and is not overwork?

This should be easy: Point out the part timers who got promoted.

If you have no part timers who got promoted, you might want to investigate whether you have not inadvertently created the kind of environment you are accused of.

Sure, it's natural for a company to give more money to those employees who accomplish more for the company. But some companies, rather than assessing the performance of an individual worker, start to develop an image of what a good contributor looks like, and promote people according to conformance with that image rather than assessing the value of their actual contributions. And that can be unfair to those who can not fit that image for unrelated reasons.

I can not say whether your company is guilty of that, but that your post sorts contributors into the neat categories of 24/7 and 9-to-5er makes me wonder whether your mind might think in terms of these categories when deciding promotions, too.

To avoid the appearance of bias, promotions should be guided by objectively assessing individual work outcomes, and employees should be given the opportunity to demonstrate capabilities we are unsure of. If they do, you have uncovered a hidden talent you can henceforth make use of. And if they don't, the employee has learned that they are not ready yet, and why. The nice thing about basing promotions on work outcomes is that work outcomes are often visible withing the team. If Jane asks why Joe got the promotion, you can compare the work Joe did with the work Jane did, and highlight the differences that mattered to you. This shows Jane how she can secure the coveted promotion, while clearly dispelling the notion that Joe's gender or age was all it took.

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  • The outcome also depends on the amount of time the person spends working, i.e. the outcome of those who work 24/7 would be better than the outcome of people who work 9/5 (if all other factors are the same). Apr 18 at 0:39
  • Erm, not if your measure is smart. If a promotion comes with an increase in hourly salary, the relevant metric for quantity is output per hour, and I am fairly confident that somebody working more hours (or incessantly working during their free time) will score lower on that metric because exhaustion will make them slow down. In addition, output should be assessed for quality in addition to quantity, and quality suffers from exhaustion. And finally, all other factors are not the same, and tend to cause bigger variance than hours worked.
    – meriton
    Apr 18 at 0:54
  • Sorry, I misunderstood your answer then. :) "Output per hour" sounds like a great idea, maybe you could add this to the answer then to make it more clear? Apr 18 at 0:58
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    9 to 5 is 40 hours a week and is considered full-time (at least in the United States where OP is located), not part-time.
    – BSMP
    Apr 18 at 8:15
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Your company has a proven culture of rewarding hard work and commitment, and therefore attracts and trains hardworking ambitious staff. This isn't normally a problem. It doesn't make it less attractive to mediocre workers, they just don't advance as quickly. So discount that as the reason for the gender disparity.

The gender imbalance is more probably the human resources available ie. if there aren't any females looking for work in that field then you can't hire any. You can target them specifically with rewards and that's common enough. But 70% male is not abnormal in many industries. It's actually better than what I have seen.

If you don't also have a problem with burn out, then you have a healthy working environment. Don't fix it if it isn't broken.

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    It actually goes into a little more. Men are generally more willing to forego a balanced lifestyle than women. Ok, not like that - MORE men (as percentage) are willing to do so. So, reward hard work (and thus higher excellence generally coming with experience) and women fall behind. You can see that as women being disadvantaged - you can also see that as men having a more autistic tendency that just pushed them higher in those fields.
    – TomTom
    Apr 17 at 10:23
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    Preferred office workers does not mean the people in IT putting in long hours because they are autistically fascinated with what they do.
    – TomTom
    Apr 17 at 10:39
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    Good answer: I would add "have HR take a look at the current practices to verify that it's not discriminatory (in the legal sense) in any way form or shape".
    – Hilmar
    Apr 17 at 14:01
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    I suspect this answer inadvertently captures the problem; people who do overtime = " hardworking ambitious", people who work 9-5 because of chlldcare commitments = "mediocre". I don't think the 9-5ers will ever be convinced of the fairness in such a setup. Apr 18 at 9:02
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    @mattfreake I'm a family man, and life isn't fair. Doesn't mean I want to drag down others though. Priorities change, or should imo, really I want to be an astronaut, but..... kids ;)
    – Kilisi
    Apr 18 at 9:07
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"What should be done to convince the 9-5ers that the current incentive structure is fair, and is not overwork?"

Can you possibly do so?

The situation as I understand it is that there is plenty of room for 9-5ers in your firm, and that there is genuinely no pressure on these people to work overtime.

But what happens is that single-minded "enthusiast" types do in fact spend a great deal of their personal time on professional development - the augmentation of their embodied skills and knowledge, through research, experimentation, and organising their thoughts - and these types are then seen as more eligible for promotion into roles which presumably require more technical skill and experience, and also presumably attract more pay.

The other side of this coin, of course, is that these enthusiasts must neglect other necessary aspects of life, like reproduction and child-rearing. Whether they delegate those functions to a partner whom they financially maintain (from the larger earnings they gain from promotion), or whether they simply don't involve themselves in it at all, probably bears partly on whether the arrangement is fair in its own terms.

If the objection is primarily from those who wish to spend time both working and rearing children, performing doses of both rather than dividing into a domestic partnership of breadwinner and homemaker, then it stands to reason that they must either take longer to develop their technical expertise (so the average age at any given technical grade will be higher), or they must be limited in their technical performance in some respect.

What doesn't do is to casually assume they must be worse at everything, that effective performance exists on only one linear scale, or that all things are equal between individuals except the time dedicated to work.

"Enthusiasts" and "9-5ers" are likely to be distinguished not just by the functions they choose to perform in their spare time, but by their prior mentalities that determine those choices. People who don't spend every hour behind the computer, but have social lives and families, might well make better people managers and team players today and in the long term, if not better technical experts. And as people who are not technical enthusiasts, they may have less strong ideological views of their own about technical matters, and grease the wheels between those who do, ensuring that teams function as more than the sum of parts.

The challenge for your firm, therefore, may be to consider whether "9-5ers" are actually making a different contribution to the whole rather than simply doing less work or having less expertise. If they actually are doing less work and have less expertise in every possible way of conceiving the situation, they would be less likely to perceive the arrangements as unfair in the first place. It would also beg the question why you even tolerate such inferior staff on the payroll, if they don't have a function. Have any staff articulated to you why they think the current arrangements are unfair?

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    I don‘t read from the OP that they believe the 9-5ers are worse human beings and seems to actually appreciate their work culture. It seems like a healthy work to life ratio is something that matters to the OP...they simply don‘t know how to promote people to higher technical positions to people who can‘t, won‘t or don‘t invest personal time to improving their own technical abilities. Where in this case the easiest Solution would be to offer training to said individuals and develop clear ‚paths‘ to promotions to anyone who cares to want one, it is then in the ball park of the employee to act.
    – morbo
    Apr 17 at 9:44
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    @morbo, I'm not suggesting the OP has any deeply negative view about the 9-5ers. But by what reasoning do the 9-5ers think things are unfair as they are? If they are merely progressing slower by not working and developing in their leisure time, but do still ultimately progress, then that does not seem unfair, unless their salaries in the meantime are so absurdly low as to be effectively unsustainable (which would obviously undercut the OP's assertion that there is no overt pressure to do the out-of-hours work to progress).
    – Steve
    Apr 17 at 14:47
  • I believe the effect of "the grass is greener on the other side" comes somewhat into play here...As far as I understood the OP, these people do progress albeit very slowly....according to the anecdotal evidence, a single junior progressed in 4 years what another would do in 12....if I was working for 8 years, and witnessed a newbie coming in and overcoming me solely because they apparently just worked more in their free time, I may come to the conclusion I'm being unfairly treated...as it for me would seem strange my promotions come so infrequently..
    – morbo
    Apr 17 at 15:04
  • Were a clear plan in place, clearly showing anyone could get 4 promotions in 4 years if they did these things, then I wouldn't have much of an argument beyond, I haven't done those things yet.
    – morbo
    Apr 17 at 15:05
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One thing you may have to look at here is how you measure "productivity."

In my experience, the 24/7 people build prototypes really fast, even prototypes that pass for a "minimum viable product" in an agile setting, but after that, a lot of tedious work is required to complete development and ensure continuity of business.

The company can at this point decide whether the 24/7 people should perform this work, or if it needs to be passed on to a separate team to free engineers for the next project.

Usually, they want the latter, which means you have a "division of labor" setup, and it becomes difficult to distinguish the source of "productivity" between leading and supporting roles.

This is where the conflict comes from: the people in supporting roles contribute a large part of the process taking a prototype to a finished product, but the way you measure gives a lot more weight to the process from start to prototype.

The gender aspect here is is analogous to gender roles in private settings: the 40 hour work week is built on the expectation that there is someone in an (unpaid) supporting role, taking care of everything that would be a distraction in a workday. You are replicating this in your company, and people who have been socialized to recognize the importance of supporting work therefore feel underappreciated.

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The reality is a little bit more complicated. I am saying this as a 46 year old person who was probably more on the 24/7 enthusiast side in my past life. I am a fairly talented/competent coder/simulation/numeric person, and i am working in an department where there are many like me around. (i currently am a team lead due to unfortunate circumstances)

  • prevent burnouts (i had a few, they are not the end of the world, but i think it did not exactly help my employers) by limiting your enthusiasts a little.

  • Compensate for the hours worked to get a good metric of "fair". Somebody whom you 12h per day needs to deliver 3x more output than somebody working 4h/day and suddenly things fall in perspective

  • Separate expert, line and project functions. Don't put people like me in line functions for technical excellence

  • make it clear that the expert path is attractive, money wise or by other perks (conference participation, hours to work on your own ideas, bonuses for publications) etc.

You have nothing to gain by pushing enthusiasts up the ladder just to have them burnt out, away from their field of competence when they are 50years old.

Instead give line and project functions to you 9 to 5 people, make sure that the interaction is respectful and that they will arrange the expert teams as needed. You don't need somebody like me on project functions, since there are a lot of things which am not enthusiastic about.

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    And make sure line functions are seen and appreciated as a fundamental need of the company and treat them like the valued workers they are!
    – morbo
    Apr 18 at 10:09
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Promotion is about capability, it is not a reward for effort.

If those that are over-working are accumulating skills faster than those that are not, then it makes sense to promote them.

But obviously you need to look at if a culture of overwork is healthy.

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[...] (the “enthusiasts”) are a lot more productive than employees for whom the job is just a paycheck (the “9-5ers”), and thus the enthusiasts advance in the company a lot more quickly than the 9-5ers.

What should be done to convince the 9-5ers that the current incentive structure is fair, and is not overwork?

I think you should review promotion requirements (if you have formal ones), and make sure they are worded in a way to emphasize that the promotion is largely based on knowledge and expertise required for the new title, not only on merits (like number of systems designed, time to deliver new features, etc). Compare that to hiring a new person to the same position - the candidates would likely be evaluated on their expertise and capacity only, since none of them earned any merit at your company yet.

The message here should be: "our promotion is not based on overwork", since knowledge and expertise are not directly linked to overwork. Hopefully such criterias would be more fair (or at least would be percieved as more fair), as anyone who meet the given expertise and knowledge criterias will have equally good chances to be promoted, no matter if they were enthusiast or 9-5er.

Obviously, enthusiasts still have better chances to bring themselves up faster, so their morale and efforts will not go unrewarded. Just make sure that the wording doesn't scare them off.

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In my reading, what you really want to do is find a more directed way to get more of something good in your organization. People who take the time to gain new skills do better. People who take initiative have more impact by highlighting otherwise unrecognized or unaddressed problems.

On the first issue, maybe spend more time on professional development during working hours. Give the people who don't (or can't) work beyond a typical day the time and structures to learn the same sorts of skills that the enthusiasts have.

This will probably benefit the people who are learning independently, too. Doing directed professional development may be even more effective than those people teaching themselves. Even professional athletes or virtuoso classical musicians have coaches and teachers. Or, perhaps they'll further enhance their comprehension by teaching others, reinforcing it.

Second, it sounds like there are people who basically do extra work that somehow didn't make it into the general stream. (E.g., the project rewritten in a new system.) Not everyone has the courage or feels like they have the institutional standing to make those suggestions.

Maybe it's worth blocking off time to let people work on a project of their own during working hours. Consider adding a process to review those projects. Kind of like a low-stakes more relaxed "hackathon." Maybe you or other people should be actively soliciting ideas from people more, and showing that you're listening by actually following through and doing them.

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I can't tell how you have set up your promotion criteria. It sounds like it's an imprecisely quantified feeling of how "productive" a worker is. My advice would be to establish promotion criteria in advance, and they are agreed upon in advance between supervisor and supervisee. These criteria should be able to be accomplished by working the hours for which you are paying them. That is, if you meet these criteria, which can be accomplished in a typical 40 hour work week, you will advance in roughly this time frame. If you follow this path, then you will have people who work their 40 hours able to advance. You can still have some advance faster than others, and those would be the ones that exceed the criteria you have established.

Also, look at the numbers. Are the regular full-timers (not overworkers) actually advancing? If it is true that they routinely fail to advance, then perhaps they are right and you do only or primarily reward what is essentially workers who give more time to your work than you pay for. You may not want to change this; many employers are quite happy with such an arrangement. In which case your issue is not that you have a culture of overwork, but how to create an image that you do not.

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So, your company has basically managed, somehow, to acquire a lot of free labor. You have, somehow, gotten a lot of your employees to volunteer their time for your company.

You attribute this to the fact that you've been fortunate to attract "enthusiasts". But, the fact is that there is no reason for someone who lives-and-breathes coding, to necessarily also live-and-breathe your product. If they enjoy coding, then on their own time they can work on their own projects.

So, there is probably more to it than just that. I can't say how the idea "I should spend my off-hours doing even more work for the company" has gotten such a hold at your company, but an old story about a boy whitewashing a fence comes to mind.

What should be done to convince the 9-5ers that the current incentive structure is fair, and is not overwork?

I don't think you can. You should try to change the incentive structure instead.

Tell the "enthusiasts": you loving coding, so in your free time, code as much as you like, but code on your own projects, not the company's.

Then, you will be able to make a believable argument that your culture is "fair".

This will never happen of course, because you are getting so much free labor from them, you'd be fools to turn it down, right? But it's the answer to your question.

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Naturally, employees who live and breathe code 24/7 (the “enthusiasts”) are a lot more productive than employees for whom the job is just a paycheck (the “9-5ers”), and thus the enthusiasts advance in the company a lot more quickly than the 9-5ers.

This does not follow. Sprcifically, the enthusiasts are a lot more productive than the 9-5ers, "and thus" the enthusiasts advance in the company faster, is what does not follow. I understand why this might be the case in your particular company, but it is not a given fact that it must occur this way. Could you institute a system whereby contributions to the company made after hours are not taken into account in promotion decisions? If the employees want to give their free time willingly and without compensation (in money or in-kind in the form of promotions or what have you), that's up to them, but you don't have to give them such compensation if you don't want to.

The other option is that this is simply the way your company operates, that the company culture is such that employees who want to be promoted engage in this sort of after-hours work, and such a culture erupted organically and not through executive fiat. It will make your company less attractive to those who don't want to work as "hard" (for lack of a better word; the word I'd like to use is "stupid" but it doesn't quite work here in context) as those enthusiasts, but also it keeps the morale of the enthusiasts up and accelerates your release schedule and your company's profits, which makes everyone look good, and maybe that's just the way that things are best for everyone.

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    "but it is not a given fact that it must occur this way." - it pretty much is. Do not reward hard work and the hard workers will get the potential somewhere else. The result is an organization where unproductive work is rewarded and mediocre or lower people accumulate while the hard workers develop furthers and a ton of recruiters head hunt them away. Obviously this is the modus operandi of a ton of large companies with utterly inept management that does ignore human nature.
    – TomTom
    Apr 17 at 10:26
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    @TomTom working 9-5 does not equate to mediocrity. Overwork can result in negative productivity.
    – jcm
    Apr 17 at 12:56
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    Except it does in this field for like 99% of the people. There is value in consistently being obsessed with what you do. And in a field where you look to build a team of the best people - obsession has value.
    – TomTom
    Apr 17 at 13:04
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    @TomTom Ah, the ole' 'passionate developer' myth. Let's agree to disagree.
    – jcm
    Apr 17 at 22:50
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    @TomTom, as a software "enthusiast" by any reckoning, I recognise that having an intrinsic interest and curiosity has always been key to my professional development, and that it has led me to apply time and effort even when not required by employment (or even against the demands of employment). I think crucially, it drives my intellectual effort in a way that is not just the minimum necessary to perform a task at hand in a perfunctory fashion, but which builds a well-integrated mental model - what is usually recognised as an "understanding". (1/2)
    – Steve
    Apr 18 at 10:05

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