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I've recently hired a new mid-level developer (not a junior but not a senior yet) and have been really impressed with their performance. My only complaint about them is that I get work-related emails and messages from them at 7pm and later, indicating that they are still working. We are a fully remote team working a 7-hour day, this person is regularly working 9-10 hours a day. Obviously this is great for productivity but it's not sustainable long term and I don't want them to burn out. Also, if I do need them to work out of hours on system maintenance tasks, I need them to be available. As their manager, I try to keep to only a 7-8 hour day - work/life balance is important!

In the past I've replied to late night messages with a "speak to you tomorrow" or "thanks, we'll pick it up on Monday" as a way to let them know they can leave what they're working on, but they've always said that they don't mind working late as they enjoy it and don't have much else to do.

How can I encourage this team member to work more normal hours? I'm in the UK, managing the dev team for a startup in the scale phase. We don't pay overtime as work/life balance is an important part of the company culture and on the dev team "crunching" is not part of our working practice.

EDIT - to answer some common questions/points from comments:

Yes, I know they're working these hours and not flexing their hours. There are such things as git commit logs and the green "Online" status on Teams.

I personally don't mind being available to answer questions at 9pm. I do a lot of 3rd line devops support and being as available as necessary to keep my team working efficiently and our application running is part of my job description. For a mid-level developer OTOH, their main responsibility is to produce production-quality code that meets our acceptance criteria, for 7 hours a day. I won't ask or expect them to do more than that, this is the UK and people aren't penalised for not working long hours.

Another point I forgot to raise in the question is that if someone is working extra hours, that skews our velocity and other KPIs. If they've been calculated based on the fact that one member of the team is working an extra undocumented 10 hours a week, then one day they decide they're just going to work their contracted hours from now on, that will screw up our forward planning.

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    I can't help but think that by responding to those late-night messages immediately, you're encouraging this individual and tacitly approving of the behavior. Your response is implying "hi, I'm working late too, it's normal." You say you try to keep a 7-8 hour day, but you're replying to nonessential email after hours.
    – alroc
    Jun 30 at 16:50
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    Are you sure that this person is actually working all day and not just taking a midday break and catching up later? And yeah stop responding out of hours would be a good start.
    – M_dk
    Jul 1 at 7:05
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    Adding to M_dk's comment: Are you sure he is working overtime? For many people flexible working hours are the main advantage of working from home, for example starting at 10:00 am or taking a 2 hours lunch break to do sports are possible reasons for working late.
    – Chris
    Jul 1 at 7:39
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    I have pretty bad ADHD, which means I go through period of focus and unfocus, which inevitably affects my productivity. Since I'm effectively not-working during my unfocus periods, I sometimes supplement this by working in the evening. My point here, is that sometimes the reason someone works late is a valid one, and should be something you discuss with them on a 1:1 basis; only then can you make a decision about what is 'right' for the company. Don't feel you have to respond to him in the evenings, that's a difficult path to walk.
    – Dan Hanly
    Jul 1 at 11:25
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    You actually need to make sure he's actually pulling those hours in one stretch as opposed to two or 3. I find that I am extremely productive splitting my workdays in 2 "sprints" of 4 hours when I had WFH options, but in the office, it is less practical. I get a lot of thinking done subconsciously so I value my "down-time" a lot. I find I am almost doing two day's worth of work when I split them in in 2 sprints of 4 hours.
    – Nelson
    Jul 1 at 15:05

10 Answers 10

100

Order them to stop doing it

I had exactly the same with my recent hire. Awesome guy. Absolutely smashing it.

I brought it up in our first weekly one-on-one. Didn't stop him. So I started ordering him home at the end of every day:

"Right, it's 5:30. Can you guess what I'm going to tell you?"

"Go home?"

"Yes. Go home. I'll see you tomorrow."

And I also made sure to teach him why regularly working extra actually harms the company in the long run:

Because it makes you less productive. Lots of great research on this. For any kind of creative/thinking-heavy work, you tend to get the same amount of useful work done whether you work 4 hours a day or 12.

Because it takes time away from you. I tell my guy, if you're that motivated to help the company, spend those extra hours teaching yourself useful skills. That'll help us far more in the long run than anything you're doing right now.

Because it's not sustainable. If there's more work than one person can handle then we want to know as early as possible so we can work on hiring more people. If you try to cover up the problem by working overtime, you'll eventually burn out, and then we'll have a much bigger problem, and much less time to solve it.

Because most of the time, things aren’t time sensitive. But on those rare occasions when they are, we need you to be able to go above and beyond. If you’re already depleted from regularly working over when it’s not needed, you won’t be available when it actually is.

And so on and so forth.

Frame it as harming the company. Order him to stop. Make it a disciplinary issue if he still persists. He'll get the message eventually.

Edit:

People in the comments make a good point that you should check if your guy is actually working more hours, or just doing them at different times/more spread out over the day.

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    It's also a bad influence on junior team members. If this employee is also emailing other employees after hours, they might get the impression that it's expected that they work late (especially folks who are new to the company).
    – BSMP
    Jun 30 at 17:17
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    I also like to frame it with "I love your commitment, and I want that commitment to be there when it really counts. Save it for then, don't burn it all now." Jun 30 at 18:05
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    If my boss told me to give them my “work computer”, I would tell them, to “find a new employee”. I am not a child.
    – Donald
    Jul 1 at 2:00
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    This might be counter-productive in a remote team. While you can judge if somebody is working too many hours in office, you cannot be sure if it's the same in home office. If my boss would have told me to stop working at 17:30 during the first COVID lockdowns this would have caused a lot of stress and decreased productivity for me, because it was not possible to organize my workday like that. So the answer would benefit from differentiating between unusual working hours and overtime.
    – Chris
    Jul 1 at 7:35
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    @Donald If you persistently keep ignoring requests to manage your own work hours then, maybe, that would be for the best.
    – Borgh
    Jul 1 at 11:05
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You should really ask them why they work that long in a 1-1 meeting.

I, for example, usually work longer in the evening because I want to finish a task. Might not be a sign of perfect mental health, but if I wouldn't finish the task before leaving, I would think about it the whole evening and probably half night. So if I want to have a relaxed evening I need the task to be done. I know this is my problem, and I absolutely don't expect my company to pay for the overtime, but being forced to leave early would stress me more than working unpaid overtime.

Not saying that the same applies to your employee, and it would be really bad if they work overtime because the feel pressured to do so, but the only way to find out is to talk to them privately.

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    You should not do this unpaid. Talk to your manager so you can have the time off the next day instead. Jun 30 at 21:02
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    Best answer. There are many different reasons why people might work late, and it's important to understand the reason before leaping to a "solution". I've had co-workers who would knock off at 3 o'clock to pick their kids up from work, then log back on for a couple of hours after the kids were in bed and the house was quiet. I've had others who worked late because they were struggling and needed help but didn't feel they could ask for it, and others who were just workaholics. Each case requires a different approach. Jun 30 at 23:53
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    Work patterns like the kid pickup one @GeoffreyBrent describes are also easier with remote work and may be part of the appeal of the role.
    – Adam Burke
    Jul 1 at 2:15
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    @ThorbjørnRavnAndersen There are many kinds of compensation, and only BDL can determine if his is fair. Example: maybe he ends early other days, and he and his employer are each happy with how it balances out.
    – fectin
    Jul 1 at 13:41
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    There's a difference between staying 5-10 minutes late to finish a thought one a month, or even once a week, than spending 2-4 hours extra every day. Unfortunately, this Answer doesn't differentiate that and the OP definitely should. Jul 1 at 22:47
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'Fully remote' meaning working from home? Perhaps he's taking a long lunch and making up hours later. Let it go.

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    100% this. I personally work random hours because being remote means I get the flexibility to spend time doing other things. 1hrs gym, 1hrs lunch, 2hrs with friends. This means I might be working at night sometimes.
    – ignorance
    Jul 1 at 9:10
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    I think we need to be careful with that. I think OP should talk to the employee in a 1-to-1 to find out why they work at that rythm. During Covid, while working remote I developped a bad case of workaholism, working 15-16 hours a day, sometime more. This wrecked my health, and if my manager at the time didn't pick up on it, I probably would have lost my job. I'm not saying that's what is happening here, but I think it's better for OP to make sure they're not dealing with a similar situation here.
    – user3399
    Jul 1 at 13:08
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    I don't think OP should just "let it go," though the suggestion brought up by this answer is valid. Perhaps the employee is taking more midday breaks or waking up substantially later than the rest of the staff, so he works later to ensure he still puts in the required 8 hours. Jul 1 at 21:15
  • @ChaseSandmann Yes, that's exactly what I said! Jul 2 at 0:07
  • Thanks for the suggestions. Although we work remotely, we don't work fully flexibly. Unless we've agreed specific arrangements, employees are expected to be available during office hours - it's not fair on other members of the team if they can't do their job because someone they need to contact isn't available.
    – Mourndark
    Jul 7 at 14:54
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Are you certain that this person is actually making 10-hour days, instead of spreading his time?

I myself take extended lunch breaks to take walks around the block, and do some housework (cleaning/laundry) in between my work as well. This means that i only get 5 hours of work in the regular '9-5' day, and i make up the rest in the evenings; so yes, i am also often online and working at 9 or 10 pm, without going over my hours.

I try to not email during those times, but sometimes i do so in order to have it read by the recipient first thing the next day

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    I'd say it also depends on which hours they are more productive. I'm better at afternoons and nights (definitely NOT a morning person), so I usually stay on later in the day because I'm actually more productive during those hours Jul 1 at 11:52
  • This is definitely a reasonable way to work, however, I've been looking for a new job and, out of the +900 jobs I've looked at, if they don't require working their specific hours, they still require being available during the "core" work hours, which would mean not taking a long walk, nap, etc. during that time. I've yet to find a job description that doesn't care what time a remote employee works. Jul 1 at 22:50
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    @computercarguy: Such jobs do exist. I've had several. Often it's not in the official job description, the employer is just fine with your hours as long as you produce the goods. And the important thing about email is that you don't have to answer it immediately, or even read it. I used to work with a team who were mostly in Europe, while I was in the western US. So they'd email me during their day, while I was probably asleep. I'd mail back in my morning, and everyone was happy.
    – jamesqf
    Jul 2 at 4:37
  • I have been working from home for over a year. I have flexible working hours - 37.5 hours a week - earliest start 7 AM, earliest finish 3.30 PM, latest finish 7:00 PM. Hours are recorded on an ancient spreadsheet that nobody knows how to alter. It allows only recording 4 times each day: start work, lunch begin, lunch end, end work. I like to start at 8, take 30 mins for lunch, finish at 3.30, have a sleep for 2 hours, and work again till around 6.00 PM catching up on emails. I have to fake the hours on my spreadsheet, but no-one minds because they reflect the actual hours I am putting in. Jul 3 at 8:40
  • @computercarguy Most such meetings are preplanned; so you can avoid being away for them. If i get called during a lunch walk, i obviously also carry my work phone with me, and i can remote access everything i need. Naps during 'core' hours are a no-go, naturally, but doing non-productive things is fine as long as you can answer your phone and shop up to (remote) meetings (and actually do make up for the hours outside of core time, naturally)
    – ThisIsMe
    Jul 20 at 10:34
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As a young developer, I did the same thing. I was young and unencumbered, I was working on really interesting cutting-edge stuff, and I wanted to learn and do everything I could to be the best engineer I could be. I was working crazy hours, but I felt it was worth it. Mostly, I enjoyed doing it.

As my career progressed and my life changed, I decided I didn't need to do it anymore. I decided I didn't want to do it anymore. So I stopped, got back to reasonable hours, and did other things with my time. I have no regrets. I truly feel that the hard work I did early in my career has allowed me to work far less in my later career. The quicker you can gain experience and knowledge, the quicker you can use it. That will allow you to advance further and make more money.

In my experience, this is not unusual for developers. I had peers at the time who were doing the same thing. All the various places I've worked, I've seen young developers doing similar things.

Your new hire is going to do what they want to do. Accept the situation. Remind them every once in a while to seek work-life balance, but let them figure out what that is.

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    Just because it's "not unusual" doesn't mean it's healthy or sustainable. I've been burnt out too many times to believe letting other's get burned out is OK to do. Jul 1 at 22:54
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    @computercarguy if you are working long hours because you want to and because you find it fun and interesting then there is no problem of burnout. If you are approaching burnout, you're not having fun any more.
    – terdon
    Jul 2 at 11:39
  • @terdon, I used think that way, then I realized that nearly anything can go from fun to drudge in one day and burnout can happen in 24 hours or less. It's sort of like eating ice cream. It's great and you want to eat as fast as you can, but then you get brain freeze with little or no warning. And burnout generally happens without you noticing. You think you're having fun, then you hit a problem you that gives you major issues and now you're screaming obscenities and beating on your keyboard. Not to mention the momentum of "normally" working long hours, so why not just continue forever? Jul 2 at 16:04
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    People scream obscenities at their golf clubs, televisions, and musical instruments, too. It doesn't mean it's a net negative. You're basing your opinion on your own anecdotal evidence. There are plenty of people who could beat you at an ice cream eating contest. People take pride in different things. Spending 23.8% of their time on their work is not the exact number for everyone. Jul 3 at 23:29
  • I don't want to blunt their enthusiasm for their career, and if they want to work on their own projects outside of working hours then great, knock yourself out. If, like this answerer they'd rather only code during work and get their kicks doing something else, then that's great too. I just don't want to get to the end of a sprint and find that our productivity has taken a nosedive because the team have (quite reasonably) decided to only work their contracted hours from now on.
    – Mourndark
    Jul 7 at 14:58
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Make sure that your notion of what's good for them is actually good for them. I have been put in seriously difficult situations where I freeze up for days at a time because of anxiety of things that aren't done and management above me insists I don't work on it after hours, even on my own time. They say "I need work life balance" but what I really need is to get rid of the thing that causes me anxiety and shuts the rest of my life down.

But do make sure that they understand they always have the option to resume a normal work schedule and they do not need to feel bad when they do it. Now that I run my own business, this is how I operate it, by giving them agency and empowerment and I have very happy employees as a result.

If their actions are actively causing a problem, have them queue up their emails for the morning. Most email clients have the ability to delay sending emails. But don't discourage a happy, productive employee from doing the things that make them happy and productive just because you have an idea of what their work-life balance should be.

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    I have to second this. I'm a developer and thankfully have a work situation where they understand working 10 -12 hours one day to get things done for the sake of my anxiety, and then working less hours another day is normal and productive for me. Jul 2 at 20:58
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Most of the answers deal with the work-life balance and health concerns of your employee directly. But there is also your side of the situation, which shouldn't be ignored.

I don't know what laws are concerned with this in the UK, but In Germany (where I work) there is something called the "Working time act" (Arbeitszeitgesetz), which determines how many hours an employee is allowed to work. This is basically to ensure that nobody overworks themselves and to protect the employer from negative ramifications (negligence, substandard working conditions, etc).

If there is something similar in the UK, tell your employee that your company and yourself (personally) could get into real trouble, if employees don't comply with the law and reduce their working hours to a normal amount. If there ever was an investigation by a proper authority in that area, you are the one who has to take responsibility.

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    That's... horrifying. You're actually ok with an outside authority opening an investigation into someone voluntarily spending their own time honing their skills? If someone is being forced to work too much by their employer, it makes sense to have a legal system offer them protections. The authorities can leverage punitive measures against the company on behalf of the plaintiff. However, when someone is voluntarily doing something they enjoy, there is no plaintiff. Authorities would just be taking punitive action on their own behalf, which is blatantly authoritarian. Jul 3 at 23:16
  • @erich2k8 how is that horrifying? Are you from America by any chance? I think the work morale and views on work law are completely different there. It's not like some secret police is running around spying on everyone and taking anyone out they don't like. Please don't read into things that aren't there -- There is a limit of 40 work hours employers should adhere to. If there was an employee whose health suffers from overworking it's not automatically game over for the employer. But if somebody (employee, external witnesses like colleagues or psychiatrists or whoever) files a complaint to...
    – QBrute
    Jul 4 at 11:10
  • @erich2k8 ...an authority like the "Health and Safety Executive" for example, it might cause an investigation. If it turns out that this employee has gotten sick from over-working themselves the employer might face a fine and possibly has to pay for potential damages and medical costs. This law I was talking about is to ensure that a) employers have to make sure to communicate with their employees the legal obligations they and the employer have and b) employees should adhere to those rules to keep themselves healthy and not burden their employers. It's all about the relation...
    – QBrute
    Jul 4 at 11:11
  • @erich2k8 ...between employer and employee and to stay healthy. Also it's not written in stone that if you're limited to 40 hours a week you only are allowed to work 8 hours a day. You can work up to 10 hours at max in a day (with mandatory breaks in between), but the average work time over a 6 month period should not exceed 8 hours. Furthermore, working on holidays and sundays is generally a big no-no. Although in special cases and special fields there are exceptions which allow for more than 8 hours per day and working on off-days (IT is generally not such an exception)...
    – QBrute
    Jul 4 at 11:11
  • @erich2k8 ...Bottom line, even if you are motivated and want to work more than the norm, you still should not.
    – QBrute
    Jul 4 at 11:12
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I think you should emphasize the work-life balance culture of your team/company to get across that overworking is not a value for the team or company. You might also try to show that no one else on the team does this and it won't help this person's performance review or career growth with the team, because it's important for team members to behave in a way that models the culture and mission of the company.

During a team meeting, maybe talk with everyone about what they do in their free time, or what they did over the weekend, etc. Maybe this will help this person see that other people have hobbies away from work.

You could also explain that overworking might give the impression that they're struggling a bit, in that it takes them 9-10 hours to do the same amount of work that another employee does in 7-8.

Hope this helps.

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Here's the thing about humans: Humans, all humans, work in one common way: You can tell someone to do something, but you can't actually force anyone to do anything unless you can provide a greater disincentive than incentive. Right now, the disincentive to work lots of overtime is zero, and the incentive is, well, you don't know what it is, but presumably the person enjoys it otherwise they wouldn't be doing it, or they have some other kind of ulterior motive (e.g. getting promoted faster, or they think it will give them a better performance review, or what have you). So you have 2 choices: You have to even out the risk/reward, or you have to give up and let them do what they want.

If you choose to even out the risk/reward, you can call them out directly; not in front of others, but privately. By this, I mean something like, have a chat with them and say, in a friendly but direct way:

I know you've been working a lot of overtime, and it's not healthy for you. I want you to understand, clearly and directly, that working 10-hour days is not impressive to me and will not help you rise higher in the company faster or whatever (substitute with your own guess as to why this person might be doing this if you have a better one). I want you to stop working these long hours, immediately, for your own good."

Something like that. Don't create a confrontation, but make sure it is understood and crystal clear that this working lots of overtime is not helping him in the way he thinks it is. That might help resolve the issue. Before doing this, you may want to broach the subject by asking him what his motivations are and address those directly, that might help to guide the discussion, but you want to end the discussion by clearly and directly saying that his reasoning for working overtime is wrong.

If, however, he is just working overtime because he wants to and for no other reason (yes, some people like this exist), then you're going to have to put in a disincentive to work overtime; in the worst case you may have to threaten to fire him for working overtime. And what I will say to this is that it's not likely to turn out well; you may end up losing this developer to a company who will allow him to work his chosen overtime. I would advise against doing this; if the employee wants to work overtime, with full knowledge that it won't actually help him at all in terms of career advancement, compensation, etc, then my advice would be to just let him do so. Your responsibility as a manager ends at the point at which the employee, given knowledge that this is not good for him ("it will cause you to burn out") and knowledge that it won't help him ("it won't get you a bigger bonus, you're not impressing anyone"), chooses to do something like this anyway. At least, until those symptoms of burnout and etc begin to show; then it is your responsibility to do something about it then.

As for what to do in the meantime, let him do what he wants, but don't respond to your work emails or messages after hours. Just don't. By doing so, you are setting a bad example: "You're telling me not to work overtime, why are you working overtime?" The answer, of course, being "I'm the boss, I have different responsibilities than you do and some of them require me to work overtime; do as I say, not as I do", but that's not likely to fly well. So lead by example here: If it's 7pm and he asks you for documentation, just pretend you didn't see the message (you shouldn't even be checking anyway, but if you do see it, pretend you didn't) and respond in the morning, during work hours. If your subordinate gets to a point at which he is working on something but is blocked, he'll likely shut down for the night on his own. By responding to his messages after-hours, you're enabling him. So you should stop that.

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Mind your own business

First of all, you have to accept simple truth : you are not manager of this person's life. He is an adult, and could do what ever he pleases, and be responsible for consequences . You are simply his project manager or team leader, and that is about it. Your duty is to monitor his work and make sure it does satisfy his contractual obligations.

What could be a problem for you are his messages and emails during non-business hours, when you do not want to work. And the solution for that is simple: turn off your business computer, or at least turn off your messaging application and email client. You do not have to work at non-working hours if you do not want to do it.

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