October 7, 2022
People want to connect, but feeling pressured to connect all the time can quickly feel like performance.
WFH Challenges for software engineers
Digital “presenteeism”, when people “perform” presence in remote workplaces, is a massive time suck. Researchers have found that when we feel the need to look busy just to impress others, it’s actually detrimental to productivity.
Another troubling aspect is that the pressure to engage in digital presenteeism impacts people at different levels of the company differently. For software teams, this might mean that junior engineers feel pressured to “perform” and can’t take advantage of the benefits of asynchronous time.
Another way to understand why digital presenteeism is happening for your organization is noticing if you have created a performance culture for remote teams. Performance culture occurs when people feel like they’re not allowed to share authentically and learn together, and that their time with teammates is mostly just a time when they need to “prove” their worth or defend. In a performance culture, people still learn and get work done–but they also collaborate less, share less, and struggle more. And this can be especially hard for software developers working remotely. Active learning is a key part of writing collaborative code, and when remote work makes this time scarce, “performance” pressure takes valuables time away from your developers.2
Keeping people in “performance culture mode” is anti-psychological safety for developer teams. Research has even suggested it means you can’t successfully have agile practices without shared psychological safety. While it might be tempting to think you’ve increased collaboration by insisting on “digital presenteeism,”teams that feel forced to choose performance over authentic work time will stop having honest and real conversations about their work. When you demand an image of constant productivity, what you’re actually doing is destroying feedback loops, eviscerating team culture, and inevitably reducing productivity.3
What does research say about remote work?
Given all the challenges with forced presenteeism, how do we find connection and collaboration in remote-first workplaces? Despite the dangers, here are great success examples from committing to remote work and the freedom it gives people. Research has found that the ability to work remotely is correlated with productivity for developers.4
Software teams in particular can thrive under the asynchronous and flexibility allowed by remote work when they are able to collaboratively trade generative and collaborative code work between teammates who may be in different time zones or have different expertises to contribute.5
The key is not to have no connection in remote workplaces, but to commit to meaningful connections that places real problem-solving at the center. Unfortunately, we often miss this. Research on software teams dealing with sudden transitions into remote work have noted that practices like pair programming can vanish for software teams.6 From collaboration to solitude and back: remote pair programming during Covid-19.
Additionally, developer teams report missing unmonitored social time like brainstorming–even more during the pandemic.7 In this study of 600+ developers, 65% of respondents reported a decrease in feeling socially connected with their team. And less awareness of what colleagues are working on (which is reported by 58% of respondents) was associated with a decrease in productivity.
These studies highlight the importance of the organizational transparency engineering insights platforms provide. Flow dashboards instantly enable engineers to not only see what they’re currently working on, but also a snapshot of cross-team connectivity and a holistic understanding of current team tasks.
Remote work solutions
Making remote work successful for developers isn't a matter of enforcing “presenteeism” but in making sure teams get time for the rituals that really count. It’s time for us to think carefully about meaningful presence, not “performance presence.”
Leaders should guard against digital presenteeism. Set quality targets, not quantity targets for teams. We all know total lines of code written does not equal productivity.
Invest in time together that counts–rituals like retrospectives and mentorship are foundational for developers to both increase their knowledge base and feel more connected.
- Use software metrics to free people’s time to focus on the actual issues they’re experiencing within your software delivery process. When you have the metrics that show where the bottlenecks and blockers are, you can spend less time determining what the issues are and more time solving them.