Recently, we ran a series called “Doing More With Less” that presented ideas for making your department budgets go farther. In that great TechRepublic tradition, many of you contacted us and gave us great tips of your own.

While I may have overlooked it, I didn’t find the one tip I was hoping to see. In this column, I want to advocate a technique that costs nothing yet might improve your department’s productivity: Tell some of your team to go home.

When less is more
Right off the bat, let’s get one thing clear. When I say to send some of your people home, I’m not talking about working at home. That was last week’s column (and there’s still time to read it and jump into the discussion.)

Rather, I mean exactly what I said: Tell some of your team to go home, because they are working so many hours that it’s actually counterproductive.

Figure A

All hours worked are not equal.

To see what I mean, look at the graphic in Figure A. Consider that curve the graph of productivity based on the number of hours a person works in a week. As you can see, the curve has four sections:

  1. When you’re first learning a job or when you only perform a task for a few hours each week, it’s often hard to keep your skills sharp. That’s why a person’s productivity starts off slowly.
  2. As you move toward full time (and beyond), your ability to leverage your skills and experience makes you very productive. In fact, in this phase, your productivity is directly proportional to the amount of time you put in.
  3. Since people aren’t machines, after a certain point the extra hours you put in start to become less productive. However, the curve is still trending upward (though at a reduced rate), indicating that total output is rising.
  4. As you reach complete mental and physical exhaustion, you start to make mistakes. Your judgment is impaired, and your ability to concentrate wavers. In fact, you may conceivably undo all the work you did earlier in the week. (It isn’t only IT shops that face this problem. Studies have suggested that a significant source of hospital treatment errors result from residents working 80 or more hours a week for months at a time.)

The downside of the high tech culture
While doctors suffer from overwork, there is something unique about the way many IT professionals approach their workload. Since technology workers tend to be problem solvers by definition, they find it hard to walk away from a problem.

Just think back to how you got into IT in the first place. For many of us, it started with popping the top off of our first computers, trying to understand how everything worked. Since it was only a hobby, no one bothered to add up the hours. If you had a problem, you threw your personal time at it until you solved it.

A lot of that thinking still permeates IT organizations. Developers often stay up late into the night, trying to debug new applications. Network administrators start their “second shift” doing maintenance and upgrades on servers after everyone else has gone home for the day.

In fact, if we’re honest, we’ll admit we often judge an employee’s worth at least in part on his or her willingness to put in the extra hours. Of course, commitment is important but so are results.

The problem is that we have entirely too many people working in IT organizations who think that the only way to get ahead is to demonstrate a slavish devotion that is ultimately unsustainable to the job. What makes the problem even more acute is that it is almost always your best, most ambitious people who are most at risk of burning out due to working too many hours.

What should you do?
One way to solve this dilemma is what I suggested earlier: literally, to tell people to go home. Everyone’s heard of MBWA (Managing By Walking Around). Why don’t you try walking around the office at dinnertime and sending some of your people home? Some points to remember:

  • Everyone’s capacity for work is different: Some people can work 65-hour weeks for years, while others can’t. Learn the differences among your employees.
  • Distinguish between short-term and long-term workloads: Every IT organization occasionally has projects that require significant amounts of extra time in the office. You need to concentrate on those employees who are constantly burning the midnight (and 4 A.M.) oil.
  • Don’t send everyone home: Unless you manage in Utopia, not all your employees are equally dedicated. Target your efforts at the ones who are most deserving instead of sending out one of those “We’ve all been working really hard, so let’s go home at 4 P.M.” e-mails.
  • Remember that he who says A must also say B: In other words, if you send someone home before he or she finishes a particular report, you can’t complain the next morning when the report isn’t on your desk. The reason for telling some of your people not to spend so much time in the office is because you think, in the long run, a better work/home balance will make them more productive. However, it will take time for that extra productivity to show.
  • This isn’t a one-time deal: If you do this kind of thing just every once in a while, it won’t work. In fact, your people may come to think you’re doing it simply so that you feel less guilty about their workload and not out of any real desire to help your staff.
  • Find ways to improve regular productivity: While it’s a cliché to say that your people need to work smarter, you can certainly benefit from taking another look at your department’s processes to see if you can gain some efficiencies that don’t rely on people giving up their weekends.
  • Manage up on the workload: Most importantly, you’ve got to start having realistic workload discussions with your boss. Those kinds of discussions aren’t easy, but all the rest of this won’t matter if you don’t make the attempt.

I realize that in these times of strapped IT budgets, you may be reluctant to do anything that may jeopardize short-term project delivery dates. However, I think I can tell you without fear of contradiction that few things are worse than learning that one of your best people is leaving because he or she is burned out, forcing you to realize too late that the very thing that made them valuable also made them vulnerable.

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Join this discussion on recognizing and addressing burnout. Would this method work for you? What other techniques do you use to improve productivity? Each week, the person who provides the best feedback to an Artner’s Law column will win a TechRepublic coffee mug.