As World Mental Health Day is fast approaching, I was struck by how difficult it can be to remain mentally healthy in the tech industry. Remote work, particularly in extreme circumstances, can lead to more difficult situations. Over a decade of experience working remotely in technology, I will share my tips on how startups that are fast-paced can take care of their software developers.
Software development is creative at its best. To produce high quality work, developers need to feel comfortable. Even in the best times, boredom, noise and too many meetings can all impact productivity.
But health is more important than that. It's almost at the bottom of the hierarchy, and includes mental health. Software developers require their brains to function properly in order to do the job they do. Sometimes, the problem can be seen in the code of a colleague before it is ever communicated.
This is made more difficult by the distributed nature of remote startups. Remote work means that you are unable to access the amenities of an office that could help your team's well being. It's not just about the coffee and bean bags, it can be difficult to spot when someone is struggling. It's more difficult to tell who is arriving late, leaving early, or just plain seems a little flat if we're not in the same place.
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It is also more difficult to determine if someone is well if there is not a watercooler conversation. If you have any questions or aren't sure about someone, I recommend reaching out. Remote teams need to communicate more. It's better to share information and let someone know that they are fine.
Give autonomy as a gift
Since more than a decade, I have worked remotely for both large and small employers as well as my own consultancy. The flexibility that comes with working remotely is what I most value, especially when it is time-sensitive for me as a software developer.
A series of life hacks helped me do better work. For example, I found a way to get in a workout at 11 AM after an early morning in the office or cook dinner before my last meeting of the day. This has helped me to live a little more of my life, even during times when I was struggling.
Daniel Pink's book, "Drive", explains how motivation is based on autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Software development success is dependent on motivation, recognition, and confidence. It is rewarding to be able to help others achieve a greater goal with your skills. This is especially true for startups, which often have more freedom in prioritizing and choosing work.
According to Haystack research, 83% developers report feeling burnt out. So be realistic about what you expect from your software developers. When there is no office it can be difficult to send your developers home on a reasonable schedule. This is especially true when you have flexible work hours and big projects.
Education is about caring
Developers are lifelong learners. This is because the industry constantly changes. They invest in their own knowledge, skills and expertise.
Employers can also invest in their employees as individuals. Many companies offer generous training budgets and time off. One time, I worked in a small software company. They didn't have a budget, but they did offer one day per month for learning. You could either use the textbooks on hand or request a tutorial by someone to help you get started on a new topic. Although it didn't cost much, I felt that they wanted me to succeed.
Freedom to work
While it is not a good motivator to reward developers with money, giving them time and trusting that they will use it for other purposes than product engineering can make a huge difference.
Google is known for its 20% approach to workers. This allows 20% of their time to be used on anything that interests them. Although it produced useful products, the key point is that developers felt included and trusted at work. Atlassian is also known for its similar approach. All employees work for 24 hours on the projects they choose, producing unexpected innovations and improvements that would not have been possible otherwise.
Many developers dedicate a lot of their time to open-source projects. This is something I tried to explain to people in other fields, but it turned out that hacker culture is confusing.
However, developers strongly identify with the world. 91% of developers believe open source is their future. Developers can feel valued if they are allowed to contribute to open-source projects. Developers can feel more valued by contributing to open source communities.
Open source: Lessons learned
Modern workplaces can learn a lot from open source. This is because we allow others to join us in projects. The open source model of a remote workflow is a good example.
People who only knew each other via IRC or mailing lists were able to build some of the fundamental building blocks of today's software world. Strong connections were made, not only was software built but perhaps more important, it also helped to build our culture.
Today's remote software teams, regardless of their location, have access to more powerful tools than ever before. Collaboration tools and source control are much more than just a mailing list. We can be in constant contact via text chat, audio, or video calls. You can also pair programs remotely via screen sharing or other tools such as VSCode LiveShare.
All this connectivity can cause additional stress and notification fatigue. Software developers all work differently. Open source projects are respectful of each other's time. There is no expectation that anyone will be available at all times. Instead, they work within a time frame.
Remote teams working on advanced technology work can benefit from scheduling as few meetings possible, leaving long periods of thought time. Setting expectations for how fast people will respond to Slack messages can also help to create a calm environment.
Balance between work and life
Many were left with less-than-ideal work arrangements after the pandemic. Many of us found ourselves unable to move around the house, so we sat on the couch or at the table with our families. There was also increased burnout.
Even if you have had your developers working remotely for a while, it is a good idea to ask if they require a monitor upgrade, spare power supply, or a new keyboard. Although many employers offer work-from home budgets, it is important to make sure that your developers have all the tools they need.
Spend some time socializing at work. It's a good idea to have fun with your colleagues online, even if it is clumsy corporate team building. If your company offers an EAP, make sure all employees are aware of it and how they can access it. Managers should remind their employees that these programs are available for them as well, and not just their staff.
Startups can be difficult for mental health. Startups are fast-paced and have many plates to spin. My top tip is to look after one another. This goes beyond managers looking out to their staff. We can all do our part by looking out and taking care of each other.
There are warning signs that warn us of burnout before it occurs. It is important to find ways to make work sustainable over the long-term and something that we can do with our healthy lives. Although it's not easy, startups who are busy must remind their employees they matter.
If you or someone close to you is suffering from depression, or has thoughts of taking their own lives, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1 800 273-8255) offers confidential 24/7 support for those in distress.