Engineering

During a pandemic, we’re not all affected equally

Norberto Lopes
Norberto Lopes
12 October, 2020

This pandemic has hit everyone hard, and it's not over yet. As an engineering manager, the situation is made even more complex by how differently it impacts each person.

Like many, the question I've found myself asking is "how can I ensure the well-being of the people I manage?"

I'm going to discuss how a few compounding factors can impact different employees' experiences, and share some ideas about how you as a manager can improve the situation.

Hopefully, we can use this perspective to treat our employees equitably, even when the way they struggle might be totally different.

Existing problems

The starting point is that any existing problem will most likely be amplified. If you’ve already been working on an issue with an employee, you will need to provide more and better support. For the rest of the people reporting to you, who may not have any issues you know about: get ready.

Start working on setting the right environment so that they feel safe sharing and working through issues (whether they are related with COVID-19 or not). In case you are a manager that has never provided a safe environment for people, well, yikes- not sure what to offer you there.

If someone in your team started having performance issues post pandemic, you should try to help them navigate these complicated and stressful times. Provide clarity on what they need to accomplish and how you’re going to support them, and then support them.

If they still don’t deliver and you think you need to let them go, make sure it doesn't come as a surprise and, if possible, support them in the transition. For example, if your company can support it, give them time to look for a job where they’ll succeed.

Above all, be mindful of their personal situations.

Remote working

An engineer in a remote-first organisation will have an easier time than an engineer that was forced to go remote due to the pandemic.

Firstly, for the remote-first organisation, ways of working have been established for remote work. People know how to communicate, inside and outside teams, and are familiar with tools that facilitate remote work. People who had to suddenly transition will need to let go of what they were used to and adopt new practices. This will likely take some time and there will be confusion and frustration before things get better.

Secondly, remote-first engineers will have created a solid daily routine that works for them. Having remote experience, they probably developed healthy “start work”/“leave work” habits, along with a good home office environment. Those forced to go remote still have to develop these habits.

By now, as a manager, you probably have adjusted the way your people and teams communicate. If not, start there. Communication must change to account for the lack of important cues people tend to get in offices. However, be careful not to overdo it, else you may end up filling people’s weeks with useless meetings. Some resources can be found on HBR, Basecamp, or Buffer.

Once you have a good grasp on communication, tweak workflows to help people get the most out of their day.

Instead of focussing on “how do I maintain productivity in the teams”, focus on how to support people to be healthy, happy and able to sustain as much productivity as possible. For example:

  • What times of day do people do their best work and what does that looks like: You can adapt your team or organisation's way of working to account for those - although true in an office setting, I believe it is even more important when people are stuck at home.
  • Have people ask one another explicitly if they need space: although people are working from home, they tire quickly of videoconferencing so it’s important to give them the space they need to relax or engage in deep thinking.
  • If you notice technology failing people, fix that. Get them a better microphone. Get them better internet connectivity.
  • Get your folks a subscription for a mental health service in case they need it (and your company doesn’t yet offer one).

In sum, remove as many stressors as you can. Small things add to stress, so the more you sort out, the better off everyone will be.

Seniority

Senior engineers will have an easier time managing change in work patterns because they are more autonomous. They will be well versed in the cycles of product development and delivery, they understand the need for rest and they are usually more vocal about the issues they’re going through; they’ll also have a good feeling for what feels “normal” at work and what doesn’t.

Engineers with fewer years of experience may have never experienced “abnormal” times - they may have never worked for organisations with crunch times that last for weeks or months. Any sense of “this is different” will have a bigger potential for disruption.

In particular, engineers in Team Lead roles, can become a focal point for the teams’ issues. If people in their teams are struggling, a senior engineer might feel responsible and will burn themselves without realising whilst trying to help.

If you used to be in an office setting, the lack of in-person contact may make a senior engineer's work much harder. Pushing initiatives remotely can take much more energy and the senior engineer will feel its toll.

As a manager, remind your folks, and especially the more senior engineers, that the people they work with on a daily basis may have different concerns from their own. For example:

  • Ask them to not assume anything and instead ask curious questions. Make it clear that they need to be more mindful to others needs and personal circumstances.
  • Ask your teams to speak about what concerns them in a curious and empathetic way, especially when giving feedback to their peers.
  • Encourage people to motivate and support one another. Sometimes people just need a few words of encouragement to have a better day.

If the most senior engineers take the lead on the above, the rest will follow and you’ll have happier, less stressed and anxious teams.

Parents

The parents in your teams will have a much harder time than people without kids. Their first priority will be the well-being of their children. The uncertainty of school, or the certainty of home schooling will derail pretty much everything else.

You have the matter of privacy in terms of time and physical space - a concern that those living in shared accommodations might also struggle with. People with kids will have less space for themselves, during and outside of work. This impacts the time you have to relax, engage in deep thinking, and have “you” time.

One way you can improve parents' quality of life is to provide them maximum flexibility. Take into account the importance of timing: ask them about the times of day when they most need to look after their family and try to arrange work around those.

It doesn’t need to be a lot of change. Often small tweaks like not scheduling meetings at specific times helps immensely. Be attentive, be open to their needs. Flexibility is key.

And more

There are a lot more other personal circumstances that we must prioritise and think how to best support, for example:

  • minorities that typically suffer the most during any kind of high impact societal problem/change (like COVID-19);
  • women who often hold the brunt of housework and kids education and care, and who are also common victims of domestic violence, which might have increased during this period;
  • younger folks who may have a higher need or want for social activity and without it are at risk of loneliness;
  • established employees vs new employees who experience the effects in their work differently;
  • immigrants that have reduced (or no) access to their extended family due to travel restrictions;
  • managers who have to develop new skills to maintain productivity in their teams and help career progression remotely.

Some of the above are quite complex but even if all of them were “simple”, think about the following combination: how do you think a single mother that started her first job as a software engineer during the pandemic will be affected compared to a senior engineer with no kids, if all other things remaining equal?

Conclusion

As a manager, start with listening. Really listening. Pay attention to what people are discussing. That will go a long way. Listen in an empathetic and caring way.

Performance of individuals will probably be more variable than before. Some people may perform better than before and others worse. Don’t take too many conclusions out of this short term - focus instead on supporting people and ensuring their needs are covered. You want people to do their best work even in the worst of situations.

What we’re faced with is not how to trade off performance for well-being. We’re faced with ensuring an environment of equitability for our employees. Their well-being should have always been a priority but now is non-tradeable. Performance is the reward we’ll get if our employees feel safe and are driven by a unifying purpose.

Last but not least, don’t forget to take it easy on yourself - management is now harder so you need to give yourself some space as well. Be explicit about your needs with your manager.

In the words of Bill & Ted, be excellent to each other.

References

  • Norberto Lopes
    Norberto Lopes
    CTO