Five ways to nurture well being for your team of engineers

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John Masse
John Masse

As managers, we have a unique opportunity to affect the work-life of the people we work with. A well balanced work-life engagement promotes productivity and resilience. In the podcast "Leveling-Up Your Leadership Skills", Art Petty, an expert in leadership training, describes resilience as a key characteristic for managers to develop for themselves and their staff. Empathy and "fierce listening" are described as essential to the promotion of resilience for your staff. During an epidemic, much like the 2020 COVID outbreak, the labor landscape changed drastically pushing people back into their homes for both work and school. What's more, is many companies are facing layoffs due to the economic climate. As managers and leaders of people, it behooves us to pay attention to the well being of those around us. An organization that can relax worry about their work-life, and given time to keep their home life in good order will provide more opportunities for objective progress.

Here are five ways a manager, or leader, can tune into the well being of their staff.

Remind your colleagues to take time off

Taking time off doesn't solve problems. Time away from work gives people the time to put one of their most significant responsibilities down for a moment to focus on something else. While we often associated taking time off with going on vacation, sometimes we just need a long weekend to decompress and forget about things for a few days. I have used suggesting time off for folks when coming off a complex project or when their communication skills are consistently degrading. Other signs include an increase in emotional responses or exploding encounters when experiencing conflict.

As leaders, we want to help our colleagues manage the work/life conflict by reminding them that we need to take the time to take care of ourselves and our families.

Use 1:1's to check-in

A part of being a leader is being a coach. 1:1's are an excellent time to let someone let work things off of their chest. Remember to engage 1:1's by using focused listening. For colleagues that need more attention, meet more frequently. I will always start a 1:1 schedule with bi-weekly one hour sessions and defer to my colleague for any schedule adjustments. What I have found is many people are happy meeting once a month. In contrast, others would prefer a split, alternating one hour and thirty-minute sessions.

Make the 1:1 schedule something that the employee has a say in by asking them how often they want to meet with you. Having a 1:1 is not enough though, some goals should be set, and checking in on their current state of mind is just one part of that. Opening a 1:1 with a simple "How are you doing?", and allowing them to speak their mind is one simple way to invite your colleague to speak openly. Be mindful not to cross any personal lines by learning to talk around topics and being specific where it matters most. If you are uncertain about what subjects are safe for work, we strongly suggest consulting with your human resources department first. 1:1's are an excellent time to check in with individuals who might not be willing to share in front of the team. As managers, we can recognize a change in an individual's patterns. Here are some example cues that someone might need some feedback or a conversation:

  • The person seems a little lost during the daily stand-up.
  • Changes in the colleague's attention or general engagement.
  • Degradation in the quality of work.
  • Conflict avoidance.
  • Issues with attendance, either missing from work or longer than usual delay in responses.

Some of these cases require some guts to point out. The longer people are allowed to be stuck in these dead-ends, the longer it takes to get them back into a healthy state of mind.

Acknowledge areas of possible stress

Develop an understanding of what environments put stress or strain on individuals on the team. Build programs that spread stressful and invasive work out. By allowing everyone to carry the weight of a stressful job, like production support, we create an environment where we feel like we are supporting each other. As a manager, look out for bad handoffs and make sure people are collaborating. I like to call out when someone went out of their way to help a colleague understand a defect, or just thank someone for resolving a PagerDuty alert that went off at midnight. Anything that puts people out of their usual way of working can elevate their stress levels, depending on what motivates them.

I have also found that reducing the possible unknowns my team sees has three significant effects.

  1. I get a better idea of how to align ourselves for the work ahead. I never get planning right by myself, I need the input from my team. This includes team restructuring conversations.
  2. We foster ownership of processes and project work. Inclusive team planning provides an opportunity for members of the team to contribute ideas and ask questions.
  3. New opportunities emerge. When discussing objectives with the team working on the software, I always find low hanging fruit that can lead to big wins.

Look for signs of burnout

Some signs of burnout include a quiet stand-up report in the morning, they are late or disengaged from meetings or pass on a team's happy hour event. Presenting an attitude of negativity or the distrust of the quality of others' motives are also signs they are experiencing burnout. There are some suggestions made by Psychology Today that I have seen carry a positive effect on the general well being of a team, and these include:

  • Remind everyone of the impact they are having on the customer or the company. Burnout stems from a place of losing control of how their job is carried out, and building a bridge of understanding with them can provide grounding to the charge.
  • Develop autonomy. Managers can afford to drive less and allow their real smarts of their team(s) to show through.
  • Make sure your people have the support they need to be successful.
  • Consider changing the environment. Sometimes a move to another project or team will help an individual through a tough time.

As a manager, we have an opportunity to identify when someone might be struggling and by catching burnout we can bring relief to an individual and get them back on track.

Meet as a team informally

If you are reading this in 2020, team meetings are done remotely, if at all. With access to the right telepresence platforms, like Zoom or Google Meetings, we can still make time for each other. Make time for everyone on the team to get some face time. As the group's manager, invite people to share what they have been up to, or a hobby they might be into. I have found it incredibly valuable to share some light informal conversation with colleagues. I have found that these get-togethers have sparked common interest within the team or new ideas for me to spend on birthday gifts of work anniversaries. Some ideas, for both pre and post-pandemic,

  • Schedule virtual happy hour. Thirty minutes is certainly enough, one hour is better. As the manager prepares some conversation starters, like hobbies, a favorite cocktail, video game, or place to visit. A good first question is, "What are you drinking?".
  • For those that enjoy a challenge, and the patience to deal with computers and virtual conferencing, I have found a lot of success with the Jackbox Party Packs.
  • Work on a complex programming question together. There are tons of challenging and thought-provoking technical problems out there to explore, tackle one as a team.

Disambiguate what success means for the team

Nothing gives solstice more than knowing we have performed a job well done. Providing a clear message to the team about what "done" means allows them to operate, knowing that they are contributing to the organization's whole organization in the best way possible. Some ways to help create clarity around objectives could be:

  • Provide a clear roadmap for what the expectations for the team will include.
  • Educate the team on the core business objectives they are taking part in and what benefits the company will see from their efforts.
  • Discuss updates as a team. Have team meetings and speak directly to the work they have done and how up until now how far they have gone.
  • Reward fixing errors. Use data in exciting ways to show the benefits of what fixing a given bug provides.
  • Pay attention to the clarity within the backlog. If you are running an agile shop, then the backlog is where engineers go to pick up work. Ensure the tickets are good, and that guesswork is removed as where possible.

If we take care of our teams, our teams will take care of their community

Teams of bright individuals are effective at delivering great work, we have to let them do that. Our teams cannot reach their full potential if they are not maintained. Taking the time to cultivate a healthy state of well being for yourself and your colleagues is an excellent progression to a meaningful and productive team.