By February 5, 2021

How To Improve Your Remote Software Engineers’ Productivity

remote software team productivityImagine the whole world as a pool of talent you could choose from to build your software engineering team.

Sounds amazing, doesn’t it?

But you don’t have to just imagine it—this is the reality for thousands of companies of all industries and sizes who employ remote staff.

Gone are the days when you had to hope the best person for the job not only lived within commuting distance of your office but that they also stayed with you for many years and didn’t get poached by your competitor with the flashier office, subsidized restaurant, and on-site gym a few blocks away.

Remote workers aren’t lured by shiny offices and on-site perks to nourish their body and soul. Their values are different, and when it comes to loyalty, it’s been proven remote workers are more likely to stay with a company longer than their on-site counterparts.

In 2020, COVID-19 forced many companies into the world of remote working, where until now they may have been reluctant to tread.

I bet your company is no exception. Whether you have embraced this new way of working or you are not yet fully convinced, remote working is here to stay. Therefore, if you want to get the best out of your remote software engineering team, you’ll have to get with the program—excuse the pun—and understand there are things you can do to improve the productivity of your remote software engineers. Let’s see how.

Why Is Remote Working Good for Productivity?

As a first thing, it’s important to emphasize why remote work is good for productivity. After all, it’s easier to see how to improve something if you know why you should do it.

With all the technology now available, there’s no reason why working closely together has to mean physically working in the same office. Studies continue to show remote working brings better results and increased productivity.

Why is this?

Think about it: You get out of bed at the same time each morning, you get on the same train, you see the same faces, you get to the same place and sit at the same desk.

Does this sound like a menu for inspiration and productivity? No, I don’t think so either.

Anyone bogged down by that amount of soul-destroying routine and repetition day in, day out, isn’t going to be at their sparkling productive best.

But remote working doesn’t mean simply swapping your corporate HQ for your spare bedroom.

Remote workers can work anywhere they fancy that day, regional lockdowns permitting: the beach, the park, the cafe, or wherever else they like. With a change of scenery comes inspiration and creativity.

Let’s face it, the office is a pit of distractions and interruptions, with people constantly coming over to ask questions. If you ask anyone where they get their best work done, they’ll answer, “First thing before anyone else is in” or “When everyone else has gone home.” Basically, it’s not in the office.

Sure, there are downsides to remote working, and working at home comes with its own distractions. The kids keep coming in to show you something so important/funny/disgusting it can’t wait, or your favourite series has just started a new season and you’re itching to watch it—as in, right now, not later.

But these are all distractions for your remote workers to sort out for themselves. They’re adults, after all, and they’ll know how they work at their best.

You’ll find productivity guides that suggest you advise your team to get dressed for work and not slob about on the sofa in their dressing gowns, but I’m guessing your team are all over the age of five and don’t need to be told when they can wear their pajamas.

And so, with the above in mind, it’s time to now see how to improve your remote software engineers’ productivity. Whether your remote team is already established, or you’re all just finding your feet in the remote world, you’ll still want to know how to get the best results.

Trust Your Team

If your managers are used to managing the day along the lines of making sure everyone’s in at nine, leaves at six and in between is at their desk, head down, working hard, then they’re going to struggle managing a remote team they can’t keep their beady eye on all day.

So No. 1 on the list of things managers need to do to successfully manage a remote software engineering team is this: Trust your team to work hard—but not too hard.

Just because you can’t walk past your team every five minutes to make sure they’re at their desks doesn’t mean they’re slacking off. It’s actually more likely they are overworking, not underworking, especially if people are in different timezones.

When your living space doubles up as your workspace, it’s too tempting to just quickly check your email on your phone when you wake up at 7 a.m. or just quickly finish something when a spark of an idea comes into your head as you walk past your home office on the way to the bathroom.

remote software team productivityAs a manager, you might think this sounds great—after all, who doesn’t want dedicated, hardworking grafters going above and beyond their duties?

Well, you shouldn’t, to be honest.

Someone who spends their entire day thinking about work and never leaving it behind is heading for burnout, and you don’t need me to tell you that a burned out team member isn’t a productive one.

However, if you feel one of your remote teams isn’t pulling their weight, schedule a meeting with them, either face-to-face or remotely, and find out what’s wrong. Maybe the current project isn’t filling them with glee, maybe they’ve got personal problems, or maybe they’re overworked and burnt out.

You could then, respectively, ask if there’s something you can do to make the project more exciting, give them some time off to help resolve their problems, or allow them some rest.

Speaking of time off, the best companies offer their employees sabbaticals after working for them for a certain number of years.

It might not work for everyone—after all, a sabbatical can be anything from a few weeks up to a year, which is a long time to be without a valuable team member—but a sabbatical can do wonders for burnt out employees, giving them a good chunk of time to focus on themselves or their family instead of the usual one or two weeks off.

They’ll come back to work refreshed, motivated, and ready to work at their productive best.

Overall, the key takeaway here is to trust your team to do their job. Focus on results, not time spent at desks. Why did you hire them in the first place if you thought they couldn’t be trusted to do their job without supervision?

To quote Sir Richard Branson when asked about his employees who wanted to work from home or take some time off: “People will give everything back if you give them the flexibility and treat them like adults.”

Implement a Four-Day Work Week

Procrastination is a killer of productivity and, with all the distractions at home to trip up the remote worker, procrastination can sometimes get the better of them when they find themselves distracted by other nonwork tasks like mowing the lawn, cleaning the washing machine filter, or hoovering the understairs cupboard.

A possible solution? Implement a four-day work week.

At first this might sound a crazy idea to you—after all, how can working fewer hours mean more productivity?

Dutch historian and author Rutger Bregman says in this Ted Talk with Adam Grant that the Netherlands has the shortest working week in the world but has an incredibly high productivity.

Bregman says, “If you want to be more productive, work less.”

So how does this work? Surely fewer hours at work mean less work? Not necessarily. Adam Grant says, “Psychologists find that being busy, having less time, motivates us to finish tasks faster. We often procrastinate less when we have more on our plate.”

If you do decide to go down the four-day working week route, you’ll be in good company—Finland’s new prime minister is in favor of a six-hour, four-day week, and when Microsoft Japan recently introduced a four-day working week, productivity rose by 40%.

In other words, measure productivity by how much work is done, not by how many hours have been spent at a desk. The days of clocking in and clocking out are over. A four-day work week would mean higher productivity, with less stressed employees. A true win-win scenario.

Fewer Interruptions and Meetings

Software engineers need to be able to focus and concentrate. This means not interrupting them every five minutes to ask them something.

A study showed that a programmer takes between 10-15 minutes to start editing code after resuming work from an interruption and is likely to get just one two-hour uninterrupted session a day—recall what I mentioned earlier about people not getting any work done in the office.

To name a real example, here at Timetastic, we work hard not to distract the engineers. They need quiet, focus time, and if you keep interrupting them all day with questions, they can’t get on with anything. So we encourage them to shut down chat apps like Slack and to update their status that they’re going into the “zone.”

Managers need to learn that not every question needs an answer immediately. Ask yourself if it can wait, and make a note of it for later. Resisting the urge to ask questions or to ask where they are up to is hard, but your silence is key to their productivity.

Consider your mode of message in conjunction with its urgency, i.e., send an email if it’s something that can be looked at later, an instant message if it’s important, and if it’s something mega-urgent and really can’t wait, pick up the phone and call them—old-school, I know.

However, there’s also one important thing to keep in mind about meetings: Don’t ignore them completely.

Yes, I just said leave your software team to get on with their job, but remember not to treat them like they’re not an important part of the company just because they’re working remotely.

Treat them as equals by not having covert discussions without them. Keep them involved with what’s going on, and if they’re joining in meetings by conference call, make sure your technology’s up to it and they’re not on the other end of the line hearing nothing but crackling and interference. If you’re having a presentation, use a shared screen so they can see exactly what everyone else is seeing.

In the end, a remote team must be treated with just as much respect as their office-bound colleagues.

A Happy Employee Is a Motivated Employee

There’s a school of thought that software engineering can’t be measured, claiming it’s an art, not a science. But it’s possible to choose your metrics carefully and measure the right metrics to keep your projects on track and your remote software engineering team productive.

remote software team productivityFor example, the number of hours a team member is at their desk is indeed a metric, but it’s a pretty arbitrary and meaningless way of measuring productivity, which is why we don’t do it here at Timetastic.

We prefer to use metrics that are productivity triggers. So rather than measuring lines of code, hours at a desk, or any of the “fresh hellhole Microsoft just opened up,” as David Heinemeier Hansson recently described Microsoft’s “productivity score,” we focus on happy employees and look for a range of softer metrics.

We ask our engineers about their happiness, motivation levels, personal growth, and their relationships with their colleagues.

These are the metrics that work for us, and they can work for you as well.

Whether your software engineers have always been remote, or COVID-19 has pushed you into this way of managing your team, there’s no reason why having a remote software engineering team should have any negative impact on your team’s productivity.

In fact, it should only boost it.

About the author

Gary Bury

Gary Bury is co-founder and CEO of Timetastic, an independent and profitable web app for managing time off work, used by thousands of companies around the world.