Hearts and Minds: How to Keep Tech Talent Post-COVID

Studies show that during the COVID-19 pandemic tech employees are working longer hours, skipping breaks and experiencing a general fatigue toward remote processes. Such exhaustive behaviors are problematic when considering the demand for tech workers has remained high throughout the crisis.

With companies moving online and many businesses adopting remote work policies, tech workers now have more opportunities to take their skills elsewhere. Employers have to do more to retain their existing developers; assuming that team members are content is not sufficient in today’s competitive tech labor market.

Distance teams can be more challenging to motivate and nurture; however, prioritizing employee recognition and wellbeing will keep staff from moving on to more appealing roles. Even though developers are especially accustomed to working from home, the new normal is changing employees’ expectations around their working conditions, relationships and perks.

Here’s how to keep hold of your software developers during and after the pandemic.


Spend More Time Communicating But Not Working

You should genuinely care about your developers’ health and happiness. Developers are often trusted to work independently and from separate locations, meaning they don’t always have regular communication with managers and other team members. Still, this quieter type of relationship does not mean developers are not affected by changes going on around them. In fact, a recent survey revealed that software developers are very concerned about their physical and mental health. 

A simple yet effective way to support your developers is to reduce your two-week sprints to one week. Shorter sprints facilitate the transition away from robotic ways of working and toward more emotional ones. Having longer virtual check-ins at the end of a weekly sprint makes it easier to gauge how your developers are feeling and to limit any friction points. That will cut the number of meetings you actually need throughout the week, freeing up time for socializing on a more personal level.

For managers, engaging developers requires overcoming the mentality that virtual meetings should be reserved for strategic work discussions. In the new landscape, friendly “office” conversations and downtime with coworkers has also moved online. Make time for that type of interaction to happen, or you can be sure it won’t. At Waydev, we’ve made a point of upping the number of informal meetings by 20 percent. Even if the result is a 5 percent drop in productivity, that figure pales compared to what it would be if our developers didn’t have a healthy outlet to talk and be seen, both literally and figuratively.

Plus, tools like Microsoft Teams’ “Together Mode,” which places live avatars of participants in a meeting, and Zoom’s newly added range of reactions and filters, can help make strategic and informal virtual conversations feel more natural. 


Let Your Developers Self-regulate

Working from home has seen a growth in employee productivity, and your developers should be trusted to organize and assign their own working hours. We found that one in three of our engineers were working after midnight, and one study found that employees sent 52 percent more instant messages between 6 p.m. and midnight during the pandemic. Be an enabler for people to operate at their personal rhythms. Don’t have early standups if some of your developers are night owls. And don’t measure the amount of time developers spend on a task.

Switch from tracking input to tracking output. Focus on what engineers are delivering, as opposed to how long they’re spending in front of a computer. Your developers should be encouraged to form self-observing routines where they monitor goals and progress themselves, relieving stress because it often shows them that they complete more than they realize. It equally helps improve prioritization.

Fewer work meetings is also a big factor in letting developers self-regulate. Ideally, have only two meetings a week with developers: One on Friday to check output and discuss the upcoming sprint, and one on Monday to cover strategy. During the week, use Slack for work-related issues and to confirm that tasks are running smoothly, when necessary. This hands-off approach will allow your developers to work more efficiently without interruptions, and reassures them that they have flexibility and autonomy. 


Provide Pathways for Developers to Keep Learning

Developers who don’t feel like they are reaching their full potential at your company will be more likely to jump ship, especially if more job opportunities start coming online post-COVID. Moreover, being bored on the job can have serious negative effects on employees’ mental health.

The World Economic Forum estimates that half of workers’ core skills will shift over the next two years. In turn, the future of work will see developers across industries adopt new skills. In order to keep developers, you have to create an environment in which they feel they have space to upskill or reskill. This doesn’t have to be a costly process, it can involve allowing team members to explore new technologies, shadow more senior developers, or participate in projects they find interesting. 

Mentoring programs and internal bootcamps are a great way to help developers learn new frameworks and achieve new specializations. Focus on soft skills too; communicating, leadership, problem-solving and self-motivation are just as essential to a developer’s personal growth.


Use Data to Truly Understand Your Developers

Data provides visibility into a remote engineer’s state of mind, and can highlight issues that otherwise don’t get addressed in weekly calls. Data can give you the means to implement intelligent strategies and reduce errors that take a toll on developers. Not to mention, data can be produced automatically, so it doesn’t have to add to your developers’ workload.

The best data tools track how developer productivity has changed, not if they comply with a strict checklist of expectations. Tools like Wrike and PivotTracker can show when there have been more iterations than usual on pull requests, if quality indicators are lower than normal, and if there are any bottlenecks in processes. Specialized tools like Pluralsight Flow can also delve into code-level metrics and measure things like impact (the amplitude of code changes that happen), churn (code that has been rewritten or deleted shortly after being created), and technical debt (the amount of code refactoring done by a developer). Prioritize tools that produce visual graphs and reports–when there’s an anomaly in the data, it’s easy to spot. 

Ultimately, data can keep you informed about engineers without being intrusive or micromanaging, and when there are clear takeaways from the reports you can take targeted action. You could even spot coaching or mentoring opportunities with data, helping your developers upskill in weaker areas or reskill into alternative areas where they excel.

It’s impossible to deal with shifting tides by staying still. Companies that don’t react to the new landscape created by COVID-19 risk losing their developers to more forward-thinking organizations. So put the wellbeing of your developers first and foremost. Enhanced communication, independence and education will drive a more motivated and content workforce, but data is what will ultimately confirm that your solutions are working. And it will empower you to continue experimenting with strategies to engage your developers for the long term.

By Alex Circei, CEO and co-founder of Waydev, a Git Analytics tool that measures engineers’ performance automatically.

  • Originally published October 26, 2020