The human cost of overtime
I recently had the privilege to speak at CEDEC about many topics that are dear to me, and one of them was the poor working conditions in the Japanese gaming industry which don’t seem to have improved in the last 10 years.
A short poll on Twitter confirmed a hunch I have had for many years: overtime is the number source of complaint from people working in our industry.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise given that the monthly average of overtime in the gaming industry is 45 hours. That is roughly 2 hours of overtime per day.
That in itself is already a sufficient reason to raise a red flag, but there is something even more worrying. Most overtime is not paid; it is ‘included’ in the base salary.
While I don’t think there is any need to make a case about why overtime (in particular non paid) is bad for employees, I think it may be a good time (no pun intended) to make a case about why it is bad for employers as well.
As an employer myself, I understand that at the end of the day, business is all about bottom-line. Revenue minus cost. ‘Included’ overtime is a magical way to increase revenue without increasing cost.
But is it?
It might be, if you don’t account for human cost.
What do I mean by human cost? Well, put simply, time spent doing overtime is time that can’t be spent doing something else.
Let me illustrate with a few examples.
No time to learn
Game development is a complex endeavor that requires expertise on a broad range of specializations. When it comes to learning, nothing beats experience, but up to a point.
Skills need to be maintained, new techniques need to be learned, new information acquired.
Overtime steals precious learning time away from the staff.
And let’s be honest, nobody can learn anything efficiently after a 10 hour working day.
Cost: skill stagnation, reduced competitiveness, higher turnover
No time to rest
There is a reason why the legal number of working hours per day is 8 hours. We cannot keep a high level of productivity, especially on creative tasks, for more than 8 hours.
We also need time to consolidate experience into useful knowledge and wisdom. That consolidation is not possible under stress or when overworked.
Overtime reduces the overall amount of time we can use to rest and recover, leading to health issues, reduced performance, and even reduced creativity.
Cost: degrading health, chronic performance reduction
No time for postmortems
Who does postmortems anyways? Well you should!
Doing postmortems is the only way to make sure we don’t keep making the same mistakes in production, over and over, and that we can improve processes and efficiency.
But who has the time to do postmortems when the staff is already doing overtime just to deliver?
Cost: no process improvement, repeating the same mistakes
No time to try new things
The biggest challenge with trying new things (new tools, new techs, new process, etc.) is that it is hard to estimate and put into a schedule or budget.
To keep a competitive edge, and more importantly, to make sure a company doesn’t become obsolete, some time needs to be allocated to exploration and experimentation.
Again, like for postmortems, how can that time be allocated when people are already doing overtime?
Cost: risk of becoming obsolete, lack of innovation
Above were just a few examples of the human cost impaired as a result of overtime.
There is also a more indirect, trickier, more pervasive ‘invisible’ cost. The cost of inaccurate management.
Forgetting that the production staff is doing a significant amount of overtime will give a very inflated idea of velocity (team productivity). The project is not ‘on time’ because the planning was accurate, but because people are working longer hours.
However, when the team eventually meets the deadline, the management ends up comforted in their ability of planning. And because postmortems are always skipped, the same estimations are made over and over, because last time ‘we made it’.
That false sense of planning ability is the number one reason for crunches.
Inaccurate budgeting and unwise spending
Inaccurate planning means inaccurate budgeting and a false sense of cost.
‘Included’ overtime makes it even harder to make actual cost visible to management. When time is ‘free’, management will end up spending time rather than money on tools or services that could save time.
And again, the lack of cost visibility and postmortems means that project budgeting and spending is guided by a false sense of cost that doesn’t improve over time; there is a reason why project always go over budgets.
To summarize, overtime, even when paid, is a cost that no company should be willing to afford.
Reduced competitiveness and productivity
Poorer health and higher turnover
Lack of improvement and innovation
Inaccurate planning and budgeting
Time is not a commodity. Time is our most precious resource, and it is also very scarce.
Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the management to make sure it is spent as wisely as possible.
At Wizcorp, we have a simple policy about overtime. Don’t do overtime.
We believe that people know best when they are the most productive and we allow flex time for our operational staff, and worked hours are tracked and monitored.
To make sure that people don’t do overtime, we even give them a 2 hour buffer; as long as the total number of hours worked in a month is above the monthly working requirement minus 2 hours, we are all good.
We also understand that sometimes a little bit of overtime is needed to meet a deadline. We pay for every minute of overtime from the first minute.
How much overtime? Since we have put the policy in place, our staff is doing in average less than 30 minutes of overtime per month. And that is not taking into account the minus from the 2 hour buffer; we would be negative otherwise.
If you want to know more about our philosophy and benefits, please visit our career page.
Interested in joining? Please have a look at our job openings. We are actively looking for new team members.