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What we learned about developer productivity during the pandemic.
This is the latest issue of my newsletter. Each week I cover research, opinion, or practice in the field of developer productivity and experience.
This week I read Hybrid Productivity, the second installation of a new series called Developer Productivity for Humans by Google researchers Ciera Jaspan and Collin Green. Here, the authors distill findings about developer productivity from studies during the pandemic and provide recommendations for improving productivity in remote teams going forward.
My summary of the paper
When the pandemic started and there was an abrupt shift to working from home, people became concerned about productivity. Google was fortunate in that it had already invested in instrumenting productivity measures, so it had a baseline from which it could study changes.
The authors‘ motivation for writing this paper comes from a recognition that we are in a now in an era of hybrid work. The authors sought to distill lessons learned from the pandemic in order to help hybrid or fully remote workplaces improve productivity moving forward.
The authors share the methods used for measuring the impacts of the pandemic on developer productivity. Data was captured using three sources:
An engineering satisfaction survey, which is a “longitudinal survey program to understand the needs of Google engineers; to evaluate the effectiveness of tool, process, and org improvements; and to provide feedback to teams that serve Google engineers.” It is run every quarter.
A data pipeline that captures logs from developer activity, as well as metrics that have been created from that data. “We collect detailed logs from many developer tools, including all popular command line tools, our code review tool, the most popular IDE, our code browsing and documentation tools, and many others. In combination, these logs can give us a picture of a developer’s day.”
Diary studies and interviews, in which engineers are asked to share a detailed view of their day. “We ask about a wide variety of topics, including what they’re working on, who is interrupting them, what’s blocking them, when they take breaks, when they are in “flow,” and when they’re experiencing friction.” These are used to validate log metrics and also provide a means to understand why engineers choose to work in a particular way and how tools and processes affect them.
How the pandemic affected developers
Here’s what researchers learned about how the pandemic affected Google engineers:
1. Productivity was negatively impacted by the abrupt shift to remote work, but not as much as anticipated. While individuals were impacted differently, engineers at Google generally saw a decline in productivity. This happened even despite work days becoming longer.
Junior engineers were more significantly impacted, as they struggled to get unblocked on technical problems, find colleagues with specific expertise, and effectively prioritize and manage their work. The authors note that “workload management and prioritization are particularly hard for new employees and junior engineers, and remote work makes these tasks even more difficult.”
As engineers across the board gained more experience with remote work, productivity began to recover, however work days remained lengthened.
2. Communication, collaboration, and connection were difficult for engineers during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, Google engineers as a group were less likely to work from home. The shift to being fully remote impacted their ability to have many of the informal, just-in-time interactions that keep work moving. Instead, these interactions became formalized, planned meetings.
3. Well-being was a significant challenge due to both work circumstances and global circumstances. Engineers want connection, balance between work and personal obligations, and flexibility and choice in terms of location and schedule.
How to improve productivity in hybrid teams
To improve productivity in hybrid teams moving forward, the researchers recommend specific actions for individual engineers, managers, and company leaders.
Actions that individuals can take
Individuals should allocate time for focused work and collaboration, and should respect the calendars of others. Part of the reason why this is important is because while there are fewer interruptions from colleagues, there are more interruptions from home.
Editor’s note: this reminds me of another paper that recommends individuals have agency over the structure of their workdays. This is critical in making “good workdays” more common.
Actions that managers and teams can take
Managers and senior team members play a large part in increasing productivity, and the authors here specifically recommend that they regularly reach out to junior team members in a way that feels like a natural check-in without micromanaging.
Junior engineers struggled more during the pandemic than their more senior peers, however their challenges were not related to task execution — they were related to knowing which tasks they should be working on. Junior engineers also reported being more reluctant to reach out to colleagues to get unblocked.
Additionally, engineers that were hired during Covid were found to ramp up 3-6 weeks slower than those who ramped up before the pandemic. To help new hires ramp up more quickly in hybrid environments, the authors recommend dedicating mentors who will actively pair-program with the new hires, as well as encouraging in-person time during the onboarding phase.
Actions that company leaders can take
Company leaders also play a role in developer productivity. Specifically, they can adopt tools, processes, and cultural norms that allow developers to work asynchronously. In addition, they can increase communication across channels to keep teams aware of a clear set of priorities.
While “work from pandemic” is certainly not the same as “work from home,” this paper nonetheless provides a unique viewpoint on how we can improve remote work moving forward. I found the insights regarding ramp-up time and the difficulty junior engineers encounter in prioritizing their tasks particularly interesting. Overall, this paper may serve as a reminder to focus on increasing communication and connectedness while working remotely.
That’s it for this week! Share your thoughts and feedback anytime by replying to this email.
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