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InfoQ Homepage Articles The IT Leader’s Guide to Helping Developers Avoid Burnout

The IT Leader’s Guide to Helping Developers Avoid Burnout


Key Takeaways

  • Developer burnout has always been a concern, and it will continue to be even as the way we work has changed.
  • In this new era of work, organizations need to embrace online social intelligence.
  • Tech leadership is by definition a technical job, but it is also a people-centric job.
  • Mastering asynchronous communication is vital as teams become more distributed.
  • The phrase "work-life balance" has become somewhat cliche, but it's a concept that needs to be embraced to help dev teams avoid burnout.



For obvious reasons, the developer workforce has become increasingly distributed over the past two-plus years, and that has contributed to new levels of stress. Conditions continue to evolve, but work still needs to be done. With this backdrop, what can IT leaders do to prepare for the future of software development that gives teams the tools and resources they need to keep individual developers happy, productive and as stress-free as possible?

As the new post-COVID norm defines itself, a good number of developers have embraced working remotely in either co-working spaces or their home offices. They’ve grown to avoid the distractions that can arise and achieve better work-life balance, while also maintaining or even improving productivity.

On the flip side, there is still a minority of those who feel working in a traditional office setting with shared workspaces brings the best out of developer teams, and this setup certainly has its advantages. But businesses are finding it harder and harder to justify continuing to spend on real estate and leases when the trend in the workforce clearly points to a distributed model.

All of this said, developer burnout has always been a concern, and it will continue to be even as the way we work has changed. Fatigue and burnout appear in any line of work, so the key for leaders is to find ways to help their teams avoid – or at least minimize – work-related stress in a way that supports evolving work styles.

Embracing Online Social Intelligence

In this new era of work, it's imperative for team members – from the CEO down – to have the ability to "read the virtual room" and have an understanding of what developers are thinking and feeling based on the tone and content of online interactions and conversations. Whether it’s Slack, Zoom, Teams or any other collaboration tool, it’s not the same as communicating face-to-face with someone who’s literally sitting at the same table.

It’s possible to teach leaders the skills necessary to manage effectively in this environment, but we’re also seeing a rise of new and emerging leaders that are thriving because they place a priority on empathy and personal connections, even when most of the communication that takes place with their team members is digital. Paying attention to online social cues can help leaders determine if and when team members are stretching themselves too thin.

Make no mistake, modern communication tools have helped make work more productive and efficient. But the best leaders are those who are able to analyze behavior on these tools so they can offer team members support when it’s needed most. Some ways managers can do this include:

  • Regular one-on-one meetings: These meetings are important for getting a sense of the motivation and morale of the team. If the leaders are feeling beaten down, defeated, or hopeless, they should also assume that these attitudes are flowing down to the team. Alternatively, if leaders that are working well together, have high morale and are highly motivated, most likely the rest of the team is as well.
  • Break a negativity cycle: A lot of developers find themselves from time to time dwelling on negative thoughts. This is oftentimes a matter of living in the future, but in a bad way. “If such and such goes wrong, then …” and we see individuals spinning out long internal yarns about how to respond to that non-existent situation.
  • Prioritize feedback: Everyone deserves constant feedback. No one should be surprised by any aspect of their annual performance review (either positive or negative). In fact, I’ve always found continuous feedback to be more effective than annual review in terms of keeping a team engaged and ensuring everyone is invested in a common goal. I would much rather see tools that help me ensure that engineering managers and directors are giving coaching and feedback on at least a weekly basis, rather than suffer the backlog of work and the build-up of anxiety around a yearly review. 
  • Identify the right management style: We too often forget that every person needs something different from their direct manager in order to perform their best. Leaders need to figure out what each one of their reports needs – some people need a collaborator, some need a mentor, some need a taskmaster, while some have inherent problems with authority, and therefore need very special handling. It is important to note that the kind of manager someone needs for optimal performance may not be the kind of manager that someone wants or prefers. It’s important to figure this out and even ask people on your team what they want as well. 
  • Remember that transparency leads to trust: Something that I prioritize as a manager is spending time sharing what I’m working on. This not only helps engineers understand the context in which I am working (and what I am worried about), but it also helps to humanize my side of the relationship, which for some people is important for building trust.

Over time, as leaders develop stronger relationships with their teammates, they get better at identifying when a report might need more support, a break, etc. That’s why it’s important to remember that though technical leadership is a technical job, really, at the end of the day, it is also a people-centric job.

Perfecting Asynchronous Communication

With so many teams distributed globally, they need to take advantage of the sliver of time when meetings can take place within "normal" working hours for all – essentially in the morning for those on the West Coast and later afternoon in Europe. This gives developers significant chunks of time for uninterrupted work, while also keeping the communication flow going using the organization's preferred collaboration tools.

Developers crave longer stretches of work time with no interruptions from meetings. During these times they can focus intently on writing code, building applications, or turn their attention to any other problem-solving that might pop up. This can have a two-pronged effect by boosting productivity across the organization while also increasing team morale. We all feel valuable when we’re able to take the time necessary to solve more complex problems. The work is much more rewarding and engaging, and that shouldn’t be overlooked. In fact, it’s a large part of what keeps people from changing jobs or even careers.

Having fewer formal meetings is nice, but communication and collaboration still need to take place for developers to do their jobs effectively. This is where mastering asynchronous communication comes in. It’s becoming more vital as teams become more distributed. Here is a quick breakdown of how synchronous and asynchronous communication differ:

  • Synchronous communication. This takes place among team members who are in close geographic proximity, such as the same city, state or time zone. It’s easier for these teams to quickly organize one-off meetings to sort out issues, even if it’s via Zoom or Teams. In the developer world, these teams typically share responsibilities for the same sets of code and often work together in real-time. One of the main challenges they face is accurately capturing the rationale behind their design and/or logic in a way that’s searchable and shareable.
  • Asynchronous communication. This type of communication is sharply on the rise as teams are increasingly formed across states, time zones and continents. Since it’s virtually impossible for these teams to routinely jump on a quick call when necessary, they need asynchronous methods and tools that keep important information flowing in a searchable way, with assignments clearly communicated and documented. The challenge here is breaking down the natural siloes that appear when teams are distributed around the world. Effective asynchronous communication allows developers to work independently but with full visibility. When done correctly, this method prevents bottlenecks, keeps the code flowing smoothly, and limits unnecessary stress that can lead to burnout.

Each of these communication methods can be both effective and productive, but asynchronous communication is often newer to most. Implementing best practices and evolving them over time keep teams on the same page, which ultimately limits frustrations. 

One effective approach that works for us at InfluxData is holding a daily company-wide ‘stand up’ meeting to create a sense of unity at a company where the team is fully remote and distributed all around the world. Every employee joins this 10-minute Zoom meeting, and we share announcements and updates from the different divisions of our business, give employee shout-outs or recognize work anniversaries. Standup has helped our company maintain its strong culture throughout the pandemic while keeping our distributed team engaged, connected and invested in our common goal. 

Taking Work-Life Balance Seriously

The phrase "work-life balance" has become somewhat cliche as our work and home lives have blended, but it's a concept that needs to be embraced to help dev teams avoid burnout. Separating home and office lives are largely a thing of the past, but it's still important for developers to completely disconnect from the job when they're not "at work." 

At the dawn of the pandemic, when teams were largely forced to work from home, many tried to still maintain a significant separation from home while “at” work, even if this was in perception only via the latest office-like Zoom backgrounds. As we all got more comfortable with this reality, however, it became much more common for team members to open up where home life is concerned. We all now know the names and ages (and probably more) of our teammates’ kids and pets, and in some cases, this has helped teams bond on a more personal level.

Taking it a step further, many developers now include day-to-day family responsibilities into their workdays. Quick breaks to feed the family, walk the dog or pick up the kids from school are quite common. This applies to self-care as well, such as a short walk or jog around the neighborhood or an online yoga class to break up the day. In my experience, the new culture of remote work has made developers both happier and healthier – a main reason why many are reluctant (and flat-out resist) the return to pre-pandemic office days.

Company culture plays an integral role in helping team members maintain their health and happiness. Business leaders and organizations as a whole need to respect a healthy work-life balance for their teams, because doing so is a win-win proposition. Employees win because they’re happier and more productive, and businesses win because they’re able to retain their top talent in what has become the most competitive job market in recent memory.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, as the way developers work continues to evolve, so too should healthy tactics and habits that can minimize stress and help save team members from completely burning out. Winning organizations will be those who devise a plan and refine it over time to meet developers’ needs. This is not only a good business strategy – it’s a good human strategy. 

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Community comments

  • Some questions

    by Petr Sobotka,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Good article, here are some questions:
    - What do you propose to do to "Break a negativity cycle"?
    - Could you explain in other words "Something that I prioritize as a manager is spending time sharing what I’m working on"?
    - Could you be more specific on "... asynchronous methods and tools that keep important information flowing in a searchable way, with assignments clearly communicated and documented"? I think you need the same with remote teams which work more or less synchronously. Which methods and tools are specific for asynchronous communication?

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