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How to keep software engineers motivated in the long term

coding
(Image credit: Shutterstock / Gorodenkoff)

Every business wants high performing employees. A McKinsey study found that high performers are 400% more productive than average ones. In highly complex roles, such as software development, that jumps to 800%.

But high performers still need motivation, and they need to be kept engaged. This was already very challenging pre-2020; now, with the way we work irrevocably changed, how do managers keep software engineers motivated?

As the first waves of the pandemic sent those that could to work remotely, people quickly realized that they would need to adapt how they manage their teams. From daily check-ins to virtual socials, many of the tactics employed were designed to replicate those informal office moments that offer so much in the way of problem solving and creativity.

About the author

Gaurang Torvekar is co-founder and CEO at Indorse

However, those initiatives were deployed in a situation many thought would be temporary. Now, the thought of yet another video call, whether social or work related, is unlikely to be met with much enthusiasm. In fact, it could have a detrimental effect on motivation and engagement - many of us are struggling with pandemic-induced burnout, brought on by a lack of separation between work and home life.

So, what long-term actions can leaders take to keep their engineering and software teams happy and productive?

Align an individual’s work, passion and business need

Software engineers are motivated and engaged when they know the work they are doing contributes to something positive. That can be as part of a greater purpose (such as having a tangible impact on a company or community), it can be individual progression, or it can be a combination of the two.

If an employee is developing and knows that their work is having an impact, they are going to be more motivated than someone that isn’t progressing or who doesn’t feel their work is valued. Managers need to know what their teams’ career aspirations and development goals are, and help align those objectives with the work being undertaken. It’s a two-way street, however; engineers need to proactively identify where they want to be and not expect leaders to come up with career objectives for them.

Tell people what you want, and do it yourself

Leaders have to demonstrate the behaviors they want to see in their teams. If the aim is to have a collaborative, positive and supportive team culture, then managers need to embody all those characteristics.

It’s particularly important at a time when many people are re-evaluating what is important to them. The lines have blurred between when people are at work and at home. Leaders need to work hard to ensure teams do not burn out.

It could be only sending emails and other messages in office hours, or avoiding asking for something at the end of the day. It could even be not introducing mandatory social events at lunch time or early evening. Whatever it is, these are all ways in which leaders can demonstrate they want their teams to have a clear demarcation between work and home.

Be conscious of how you use different channels

Software engineering teams may have been living in a world of Slack, Zoom and other collaboration tools long before they went mainstream. However, without the face-to-face opportunities to have informal catch ups and share feedback, there is a tendency to use channels in an undefined manner.

Leaders need to ensure that each tool has clearly defined rules on how they can and can’t be used. That means thinking about the channel (whether Slack, Zoom, email, teams, messenger etc.) and ensuring everyone is engaging in the right way. Sharing structured, detailed feedback on Slack, for example, would not be appropriate. Nuance can be lost and comments taken out of context in email chains. In addition, the old maxim of ‘praise in public, criticize in private’ is especially true in the remote era, where written criticisms remain visible once published.

Let people work

In the same way that constant interruptions in the office can disrupt productivity, so too can multiple calls and Zooms a day. This in itself can be demoralizing if it stops people from completing tasks and forces them to work longer hours.

It is critical that any attempts to keep in touch with teams, whether formally or informally, are integrated with realistic workflows. Citigroup recently made headlines by instigating no-Zoom/meeting free days, but it is actually just the latest business that has realized it needs to carve out time for teams to just focus on work.

Check in, not check up

Software engineers are smart, professional and accomplished, and should be managed accordingly. Leaders need to check in as part of supporting individuals, not check up for a status update. It’s all part of being mindful of the pressures people are under, whether they’re work-related or personal. If a leader knows someone has a heavy workload, constant, ad hoc check ups are going to be disruptive and demoralizing - it would be better to agree when there will be an update and stick to that timeline.

There is ongoing uncertainty as to when teams will be in regular face-to-face contact again, or even what that will look like long term. Managers therefore need to be putting in place practices and behaviors that can motivate and engage their teams in the long term. 

It is critical that teams remain motivated and engaged – both from a productivity perspective and a talent retention point of view. We may be in the midst of an economic crisis, but software engineers remain in high demand. Businesses must not take their employees for granted. If they do, companies could well find themselves struggling to retain the very talent the organization needs to remain relevant in a digital market.