I think it is fair to say that at this point, we all know that the stereotype of an engineer coding in a dark room, burning the midnight oil, has become painfully outdated and ridiculous. However, what we haven’t internalized in the industry quite yet is that engineering productivity is less about standardization, dashboards, and metrics and more about a real sense of autonomy.

The truth is that most productive engineers normally look like they are not working much.

Let me tell you about Anna. I worked with this great backend engineer for over seven years; let’s call her Anna to maintain anonymity. She would usually join a quick standup from her phone. She was normally at the playground with her kids, having a good time and getting them ready for the day. Then, she would go quiet for the rest of the day unless we had specific team calls. However, in the evening, we would see a bunch of activity from her show up on Github and Slack. 

I remember at the beginning, I would be concerned that she was working in the evenings, perhaps having trouble with the workload, but I quickly learned that she loved it. Anna told me that she would find peace and quiet after the kids were in bed, and she would get in the flow until she decided to stop. It was not only during the evenings that she was active; during the day, she would revise docs, add comments, and review stuff for other team members. She was not burning the midnight oil; she was effectively chunking her time and would reserve the evening for the more challenging problems.

She also didn’t need to join every standup; we were fully distributed, so we would have asynchronous check-ins in case people couldn’t make it. Anna had control of her day, and she prioritized her life and kids over work. As a consequence, she could do much better work when she sat down to do it. It was done her way at her time. She didn’t have to pretend she was working when she wasn’t. 

She was great at communicating, very direct, and not afraid of flagging any issues. Anna never let the team down; she would set expectations on when things would get done and just do it.

Tasks were completed on time; she always came up with great solutions and identified problems proactively. Anna also took time off often, and she was always upbeat. 

Anna was not the only one; the rest of the team had different routines, but they all had the same in common. They would prioritize life over work, do stuff when they felt they were most productive, and communicate openly about issues or blockers. 

The team knew what to do; it was me, as a manager, who needed to understand how to stop trying to control how people worked. My job was to coordinate, guide, help, coach, and listen, not control.

Most engineers, like everybody else, are trying to get enough sleep so they can function the next day. At least 40% of them have children, which involves efficiently preparing for the day in the morning and, if lucky, finding time for a workout. 

On average, software engineers are in their late 30s-mid 40s, meaning many would have elderly parents requiring their attention. Regular life is full of all sorts of chores and appointments. We get tired; we get ill; we need time to rest, time to play, and time to learn.

The most productive engineers I know take care of themselves. If you are an engineering manager, you have to help them do that.

Yes, there will be times when this sense of freedom will bite you back. There will be this one engineer who, no matter what you do, will not pull their weight, and there will be people who struggle with communication and time management, but that should not be the reason for you to optimize your culture and systems around those who are not delivering. 

Find out what the problem is, use your 1:1s to understand what makes people tick, and build a system that helps empower those who thrive with autonomy while simultaneously developing strategies to help those who are still struggling. 

Don’t punish everybody because of the few.

If you’re still skeptical about how rest and autonomy can enhance your team’s productivity, we recommend a couple of excellent books filled with scientific research on the topic.

Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and the Surprising Science of Real Toughness by Steve Magness

Life Profitability: The New Measure of Entrepreneurial Success Kindle Edition by Adii Pienaar

Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang 

“People are responsible adults at home. Why do we suddenly transform them into adolescents with no freedom when they reach the workplace?” — Ricardo Semler

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