How do you get a help desk staffer who hasn’t had a raise in two years to spend another Saturday in the office doing client inventory for an upcoming OS migration?

This troubling question is increasingly on the minds of IT departments, as “cost savings” remains the mantra in a second year of belt-tightening. Motivating an overworked staff isn’t easy, and it’s not getting any easier. Managers increasingly need to turn to unconventional methods to reward team members for hard work.

TechRepublic recently asked its members about their preferred methods of informal compensation and, not surprisingly, off-the-books “comp” time was the big winner. Across all republics, 55 percent of the more than 1,000 members who responded to the poll cited comp time as their favorite flexible rewards option. The runner-up option, team lunches or outings, pulled only 14 percent of the vote. (You can see the full results of the poll in Figure A.)

Figure A
More than half of our poll respondents said comp time is their preferred form of informal compensation.

In theory, comp time sounds like the perfect solution—if employees work long hours to get the job done, the company responds by simply allowing them to take a little time away from the office when things aren’t so crazy. But like most ideas that sound great on paper, comp time is fraught with its own set of problems that savvy managers should watch out for.

Things never really calm down. The practical pitfall I’ve encountered with comp time is that there’s never a good time for an employee to take it—there’s always something to do. And once you informally tell an employee to take a half-day sometime when it’s convenient, asking them to postpone that benefit because the team is still in a pinch sends a horribly mixed signal. Comp time can be a great option for predictable shifts in effort level, such as an influx of basic document coding work. But for more dynamic work environments, it’s a slippery slope, at best.

Technically, it may well be illegal. Comp time is a highly sticky issue for regular hourly workers—at the very least, companies need to match the terms of monetary compensation in equal value of compensatory time granted. In other words, if you have an hourly help desk staffer who gets time-and-half for overtime, you have to grant time-and-a-half in compensatory time off. For hourly employees, informal comp time is simply not a viable option—the rules must always apply. (For a little more info, check out this article at

For salaried employees—the category into which most IT professionals fall—the issue becomes even more nebulous, since their terms of employment don’t include overtime pay. Courts have ruled that comp time for employees exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act (in other words, salaried) are in fact eligible for comp time so long as the arrangement does not affect the salary basis for the employee. Like I said, nebulous.

At the very least, employers can’t ask salaried employees to keep working extra hours indefinitely under the unfulfilled promise of comp time while paying them an uncompetitive salary. An article at even suggests that employers talk to a lawyer before entering a comp time agreement with a salaried employee. However, the time-and-a-half rule usually doesn’t apply in these cases.

So, as you can see, comp time can quickly become more complicated than just telling somebody to take the afternoon off.

Comp time is an uneasy fit for flexible work environments. I’ve always assumed a key benefit of being a salaried employee is that you get to work at your own pace. If you want to take a 15-minute stroll around the block on a nice spring day, no big deal—just hang around until 5:30 and get the work done. If management creates the expectation of occasional time off in barter for hours beyond 40 a week, that deal will inherently come with the occasional suspicion about how those first 40 hours were spent. Even worse, comp time arrangements take the focus away from goals and onto clock-watching, a system that can seem punitive to your best employees who get twice as much done in those salaried 40 hours.

Comp time can quickly become a cheap, addictive alternative to planning. Here’s my big ax to grind. If your team really has too much work to do, then you need to reprioritize your budget and schedule to handle important tasks and missions. Table the rest. If managers can simply heap a rolling pile of informal comp time on a problem—particularly in the person of the two or three team members who actually are willing to hang around late on a regular basis—problems simply won’t get fixed, and morale ultimately worsens.

Remember, nothing is free, and that goes for comp time, as much as any other form of employee reward.

Don’t get me wrong—I have nothing against telling your operations team to take an afternoon off if they had to jump on a server crash during the weekend’s football games. But I’d categorize that as simply managing through an unpredictable crisis. I’ve always found the approach to wear thin quickly when actually trying to address more long-term staffing problems.

A planned approach
If you find yourself needing to push your team for a few weeks to get through a key rollout, my best advice is to simply schedule a shutdown afternoon a few weeks down the road. The key idea here is “schedule”—make sure nobody has to come back after hours to cover any bases. If you run an operational team, you may have to schedule a couple of afternoons and shift out team members. Just make sure you are “comping” the time not only from your employees’ schedules but also from the company’s expectations of your team’s throughput.

I’ve seen some successful instances of this tactic based around an afternoon at a movie complex, where each team member got a pass to see any film they wanted to see. But each manager needs to evaluate the team’s morale and dynamic before deciding to add that layer of a team outing, which fared quite poorly in our poll, as you can see above. Sometimes, team members just want and need to get away from work.

After all, it is their comp time.