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Measuring & Improving Developers’ Experience in Remote Teams

The US resignation rate hit an all-time high of 4M in April 2021. In August, job openings peaked at 10M positions, the cherry on top...

Pavla Bobosikova Co-founder and CEO of WFHomie

by Pavla Bobosikova - July 20th, 2021

The US resignation rate hit an all-time high of 4 million in April 2021. In August, job openings peaked at 10 million, the cherry on top of hiring challenges. Unfortunately for tech startups, the Great Resignation isn’t evenly distributed across all sectors.

In 2019, the shortage of highly skilled tech workers caused “extreme concern” for 79% of CEOs — and it’s only gotten worse. It’s now essential for startup leaders to invest in their remote developers’ experience to retain them and benefit from a higher quality of work, psychological safety, and engagement.

But you can’t fix what you don’t measure. In this blog post, we break down the factors that significantly influence remote developers’ experience and satisfaction and highlight actionable steps team managers can take to measure and improve each.

1. Recognition

Nothing is worse than working hard on a project, only to push to production and… crickets. Nothing happens. In remote companies especially, hard workers risk feeling invisible and losing motivation.

Recognition matters because it fulfills a fundamental human need for validation. To quote Oprah’s commencement speech at Harvard, “We all want to know one thing: ‘Was that OK? Did you hear me? Do you see me?’”

How to measure

Peer-to-peer and top-down recognition can be measured by tracking how many wins are celebrated asynchronously. For example, Slack bots let you send and track kudos messages, vouchers, and gifts within remote teams. Measuring use presents an opportunity to gain further insights into how your team celebrates wins — or not — and improve your track record.

How to improve

Give kudos often and loudly on general channels, even for small wins. For bigger accomplishments, like completing a major platform re-architecture or celebrating a work anniversary, company swag deliveries and gifts can be a wonderful surprise.

Fold wins into weekly reporting cadences. Commit’s functional leaders send weekly Slack updates that speak to metrics, priorities, and the qualitative things accomplished that week. Our team managers also go behind the #s and OKRs to call out the specific people behind those accomplishments.

2. Craft-Commitment

When you hire brilliant people, you want them to feel like you’ve got their back. That involves showing you care about their professional growth through training, skill-building, and professional resources. Moreover, helping your current developers thrive with new skill sets means you won’t need to hire as many, even when more challenging projects arise — a win-win for everyone.

How to measure

Performance conversations often focus on the skills developers need to learn but also present an opportunity to surface the skills they want to knowAs leaders get a picture of the skills specific engineers want to develop (i.e., data engineering, picking up a new language, taking on more leadership themselves), keep them in their minds during sprint planning and work allocation. Then, carve out time during performance reviews to discuss the skills people are working to learn.

Evaluate if professional development budgets are being spent, and ask your developers if the time they set aside for learning is getting steamrolled by tactical work.

How to improve

Train your team leaders (including yourself!) to adopt a coach mentality. Hiring engineers with a growth mindset, a desire to learn, and hope that their spirit is infectious is not enough. Make learning an explicit company value, and schedule learning time during company hours to create space for people to hone their craft. Commit’s bi-weekly All-Hands includes an engineer discussing a specific technical challenge they’ve resolved over the past few months. Rewind structures their sprints, so 75% of the time is on improving the product, and the remaining 25% is on personal growth & addressing technical debt.

Many companies offer professional development budgets with somewhat murky guidelines for using them. People generally have the best intentions for learning, but more urgent work often takes priority. Set up accountability groups (Commit calls them “study groups”) where people can keep each other on track and normalize taking time out of the workday for personal growth.

3. Trust

Trust builds psychological safety, meaning your developers feel secure and confident taking risks within your team. People Operations leaders at Google discovered that when they analyzed over 250 attributes of 180+ Google teams. Their subsequent re: Work report noted that psychological safety was the single most significant predictor of success in technical teams, making it crucial for startup leaders to build trust.

How to measure

Ironically, it takes trust to measure how trusting your team members feel — unless you do it anonymously. Ariglad’s combination of pulse surveys, reports, and anonymous messaging allows you to measure trust levels accurately without fearing that your results will be skewed.

If trust is low, getting that feedback from current employees can be challenging. Exit interviews are a tool to get more candid feedback, especially if conducted by a senior functional leader known to be empathetic.

How to improve

Incorporate AMA sessions into your stand-ups. Answering questions increases the likelihood that your team will ask the essential questions. Front recommends using a tool like Slido to collect and upvote questions.

Make time for regular team-building, from quick icebreaker questions to epic online events. According to developers on the team, online escape rooms, VR Games, and bubble tea workshops are engineering favorites.

You can also revamp your 1-on-1s specifically to build trust. Too many team managers treat these meetings like status updates when they could be so much more. Use Hypercontext’s one-on-one meeting templates to build trust by asking the right questions in the proper order every week.

4. Relationship With Managers

We’ve always known that bosses majorly impact job performance — one episode of The Office says enough. But thanks to Gallup, we know now that your relationship with managers determines 70% of your engagement at work. That’s why measuring and improving how developers connect to their team leaders can mean all the difference. 

How to measure

Skip-level meetings and anonymous surveys are your best tools. Managers are unlikely to self-report issues with their team, and it may be challenging to recognize if their relationships have room to improve. Both MedMe Health and Spark Advisor’s CEOs have monthly 1:1s with every team member to check how supported they feel by their manager.

How to improve

Over-invest in relationship building during an employee’s onboarding period. Commit has a dedicated blog post with tips, including setting aside 45 minutes for a 1:1 every day for a new employee’s first 45 days. And once they’re embedded in the team, schedule a 1:1 to recur at least once every two weeks. This consistency means you connect as people, not just coworkers, and when issues arise, employees know they have an upcoming outlet to address them.

First-time managers might need a helping hand on how to build a rapport with their reports - look to formal training, equipping them with actionable handbooks.

5. Inclusivity & Belonging

Employees, especially those in minority demographics, often feel excluded at work. That's even though belonging is a fundamental human need linked to a 56% increase in job performance. Improving inclusivity allows startup leaders to make a difference for their teams — in more ways than one.

How to measure

Consider running an anonymous sentiment survey. The key is to mix up the questions to keep people from checking out, present the results and action plan to your team, and follow through.

You may also be able to glean insights from interpersonal interactions. Does someone show up to social events? Do they seem at ease during conversations? However, people have different approaches to socializing at work, and someone more reserved might still feel a strong sense of belonging.

How to improve

The biggest and best trick is to care. Show vulnerability at the leadership level and that you're accountable for the feedback your team is sharing.

Create opportunities for team members to connect outside their regular duties. Procurify pairs every new developer with an onboarding buddy from a different functional area — the expectation is to form collegial relationships (and sometimes friendships!) rather than talk about work.

You may also want to change the language you use internally for inclusivity. Consider renaming your 'master' branch in GitHub, asking employees to include their pronouns in Slack, and teaching your teams to use emojis inclusively.

6. Alignment to Purpose

McKinsey was on to something when they released "Help your employees find purpose—or watch them leave" in April 2021. COVID-19 forced people to reconsider their priorities, but 70% of employees feel their work primarily defines their purpose. If your startup doesn't align with your developers' values, they'll look towards other companies that do.

How to measure

Sherpa measures meaning at work in their 1-on-1s. Developers are asked: 'How much do you feel your work makes a difference for the team/company/world?'

Follow BCG's lead by designing a survey with statements about purpose at work. For example, "My company's purpose addresses a real need in society; my company lives its purpose with passion; and, if my company was gone tomorrow, the world would lose something meaningful." Every few months, check how much your developers agree with these statements.

How to improve

Document your organization's values and purpose as clearly as possible. Ensure this information is easily accessible for your developers at all times, and make a point of embodying your values daily.

Invest in your team's personal growth — whether physical, emotional, or intellectual health. You can align your business with their goals by showing your team that you care about their self-actualization.

7. Work-life Balance

When it comes to work-life balance, remote work is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, greater flexibility in work location and schedules has meant employees can shift their day-to-day activities to meet their personal needs. This helps 80% of remote workers feel they can better care for their mental health.

On the other hand, working from home alone can quickly lead to overwork. So, how can you measure and improve your developers' ability to set boundaries?

How to measure

While there are tools that let you track people's hours, they have a high potential for misuse, so most developers are likely to mistrust your motivations for adopting them.

Explicitly asking about work-life balance in 1-on-1s and anonymous pulse surveys is the best way to assess how people feel about their workload. Tools like this focus on giving managers insight into team mental health and burnout before it's too late.

Perceptive leaders at Commit also pick up on conversational cues. Do team members seem comfortable talking about their lives outside of work? Are vacations respected?

‍How to improve

Make space for people's lives and embrace the flexibility that working remotely offers. The fellow asks all new employees early on if existing meetings conflict with personal commitments (e.g., childcare pickup/dropoff).

Default-visible calendars are a lightweight way for managers to check that all engineers have enough time for deep work and ensure senior engineers aren't getting pulled into too many recruiting meetings. An occasional scan can confirm that remote teams aren't scheduling meetings at inconvenient hours for specific time zones.

Otherwise, team or company-wide no-meeting days have been successful for Asana and Shopify. If you can't make space for such a day, consider whether all meetings must include video to prevent Zoom fatigue.

When planning sprints, scope out the expected time a ticket should take. Crucially, debrief on whether those assumptions were correct, and use those data points to set future time expectations.

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