With World Mental Health Day behind us, I thought about how the tech industry can be a difficult place to be mentally healthy. Working remotely, especially in unprecedented circumstances, can make a difficult situation worse. I have worked remotely in technology for over a decade and will share my tips on how fast paced technical startups can take care of their talent in software development.
Software development at its best is a creative endeavor. Developers need a certain level of comfort to be able to produce quality work. Boring tasks, noisy offices, and too many meetings can affect productivity even at the best of times.
However, health is something more basic, almost at the lowest level of the hierarchy of needs, which includes mental health. Software developers need their brains to be in good shape to do the job they do, and sometimes when things don’t go well we can see it in our colleague’s code before the real problem is even communicated.
The distributed nature of remote startup teams makes this more difficult. When you work remotely, you lack office features that can help you support your team’s wellbeing. Not just free fruit and coffee or bags of beans; It can also be more difficult to notice when a co-worker is having a hard time. When we’re not in the same place, it’s harder to spot those arriving late, leaving early, or just looking a little … flat.
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It is also more difficult to check if someone is doing right when there is no conversation on the watercooler. However, if you are unsure about someone and are wondering if you should check with them, my advice is always to contact. As a remote team, we need to communicate more, and when it comes to mental health, it’s better to say something and find out that someone is fine and that you haven’t bothered at all, rather than having them hit a breaking point on their own.
I have been working remotely – by choice, for a selection of large and small employers, as well as my own freelance consulting – for more than a decade. What I appreciate most about working from home is the flexibility, especially when my work is more in manufacturer program as a software developer.
I have discovered a number of life tricks that have helped me do more of my best work, such as an 11am gym workout after an early start at the office, or putting dinner in the oven before the last meeting of the day. day. This ability to have a little more “life” next to work has been beneficial for my own well-being, especially in times when I have struggled.
In Daniel Pink’s book “Drive”, he explains how autonomy, mastery and purpose are the main drivers of motivation. Motivation, recognition and trust are the keys to successful software development work. Having the power to contribute to a larger goal using your skills is very rewarding and for startups where there is usually more freedom to choose and prioritize work, this can be very satisfying for developers.
However, 83% of developers report burnout, according to research by Haystack, so be careful about setting realistic expectations for your software developers. It is more difficult to send them home at a reasonable time when there is no physical office, so these expectations need to be set carefully, especially when there are flexible working hours and it is easy to let big projects take over.
Education says you care
Developers are lifelong students; they have to be because the industry changes so rapidly. They constantly invest in themselves, their knowledge and their skills.
As an employer, you can invest in them as individuals as well. Some companies offer generous budgets for training or free time. I once worked for a small software company that didn’t provide a study budget, but you could book one day a month to learn something and help you find a shelf of books on education. text or ask someone else for a one-hour tutorial to get started on a new topic. It didn’t cost the company much, but I felt they wanted me to be successful.
Freedom to work
Reward the developers with money it doesn’t work as a motivator, but giving them time and trusting them to use it for something other than direct product engineering can have a big impact.
Google is known to use a donation approach 20% of a worker’s time to use for whatever they found interesting. It has also produced some useful products, but the main point is that the developers felt involved and trusted at work. Atlassian is also famous for doing something similar, with all employees working 24 hours on projects of their choice, producing amazing innovations and improvements that otherwise would never have shipped.
Many developers spend a lot of their time on open source projects. I made a few attempts to explain it to people of other professions, and it turned out The hacker culture is bewildering.
The developers, however, strongly identify with this world and 91% of developers say open source is in their future. Giving developers permission to contribute to open source can make them feel more valued. These open source communities can be an important part of a developer’s social and support networks, as well as their identity, which is critical to their wider well-being.
Lessons from open source
Our modern workplace has a lot to learn from open source in how we allow others to participate in projects with us. Open source projects serve as a reasonable model for a truly remote workflow to function.
Some of the fundamental building blocks of our software world were created by people who only knew each other through mailing lists or IRC channels. The software was created but, perhaps more importantly, strong connections were established.
Remote software teams today, whether remote by choice or circumstance, have far more extraordinary tools at their disposal. The source control and collaboration tools are more of a mailing list now, and we can all be in constant contact via text chat, audio or video calls. We can also associate programs remotely using screen sharing or tools such as VSCode Live Share.
However, all of this connectivity can lead to further notification stress and fatigue. Remember that software developers are all different; one person’s working style will not be exactly like another’s. Open source projects work in a way that respects everyone’s time and without too many expectations that a person will be present at a specific time, rather, within an expected time window.
For remote teams doing advanced technology work, scheduling as few meetings as possible that leave long periods of time to think and set expectations about how quickly someone is expected to respond to Slack messages can really help provide a working environment calm.
Balance between work and private life
When the pandemic prevented us from making our daily commute, many were left with less-than-ideal work setups. Parked on the sofa or kitchen table, and possibly with other family members nearby, which wasn’t surprisingly difficult for many of us, with increased burnout levels widely reported.
Even if your developers have been working from home for some time, it’s never a bad idea to check if they need a monitor upgrade, spare power supply, or even a new keyboard. Many employers now offer work-from-home budgets, but a little goes a long way when it comes to making sure your developers have the tools they need.
Take the time to socialize together with work. Hopefully noteworthy corporate team building is a thing of the past, but a few simple online games can lighten the mood. If your company offers an EAP (employee assistance program), make sure all your employees know about it and know how to access it. It doesn’t hurt to remind managers that the programs are there for them too, not just the people on their teams.
When it comes to mental health, a startup can be a difficult place to be. They are fast, with frequent changes and a lot of plates to keep spinning. My best advice is to protect each other, and it’s not just managers who are looking for their staff. We can all do our part by taking care of others and taking care of ourselves.
When we run out, there are warning signs before it happens. We need to find ways to make our work sustainable in the long term and to be something we do alongside our healthy lives. It’s easier said than done, but busy startups need to take the time to remind their employees that they matter.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or has thoughts of harming or killing themselves, The national lifeline for suicide prevention (1-800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in need, as well as best practices for professionals and resources to help in crisis prevention and situations.