5 Tips for Managing an Engineering Team in a Bear Market


Done right, a bear market can be an opportunity for engineering teams to become more effective. In this article, Uplevel CEO Joe Levy looks at how organizations can do more with less in a difficult economic climate.

In a bear market, businesses have immediate pressure to do more with less. Software engineering teams often make up over 20% of R&D costs, and typically 80% of R&D costs are payroll related. So when the C-suite looks to make their business as operationally efficient as possible, R&D headcount is a common area to analyze.

For some companies, that means hiring less aggressively. For others, it can mean layoffs. And for a lucky few, it can lead to growth. In any case, it means making sure R&D efforts are well aligned with business priorities. While this should always be the case, high-growth bull markets tend to hide imperfect alignment, whereas bear markets can bring it to the surface.

Now more than ever, engineering leaders need to keep their teams aligned and focused on what the business needs to be successful. Here are five ways to do that effectively.

Make sure your people are working on the right projects

This one may seem obvious, but it can be challenging to do at scale across projects, teams, continents, and more. 

What is your engineering team working on? Does the work align with the company’s goals? When you’re more involved in big-picture thinking than your team’s daily work, these can be tough questions to answer. You’ll need help from your team to collect the data, which can take weeks of endless surveys, chats, and time tracking. These tasks can decrease not only product velocity but also annoy your people.

Whether you take this manual approach or leverage an engineering insights solution, maintaining visibility into your engineering work is critical to strategic and headcount planning. Look at how your team is allocating their time and map their projects to specific investment buckets. It will help you align their efforts with big-picture goals while enabling headcount planning based on actual product effort investment. 

For example, if your team spends too much time on bug fixes and lights-on activities, is now a good time to invest in tech debt to reduce the burden? This might allow for more rapid feature work when the market swings again. Conversely, is this an opportunity to reduce support overhead on less profitable products, shifting those resources into other priorities?

Help front-line developers get the focus time they need 

To avoid (additional) hiring freezes, layoffs, or other economic impacts, ensuring your team is working as effectively as possible is important. 

In a 2020 State of EngineeringOpens a new window report, 50% of software developers reported insufficient time to do their work more than two days each week. Around 20% feel that way every day. To make up that time, you’ll hear many developers say they use their time at night or on weekends, which can lead to burnout (more on that later).

Deep Work, a period of uninterrupted focus time, is a cornerstone of engineering effectiveness. Eliminating unnecessary meetings and distractions could clear the way for more focused productivity and complex problem-solving, which can help your team’s output. Encourage them to block daily or weekly hours for distraction-free work while considering team calendars. 

Better yet, set aside uninterrupted time for the entire team to help ritualize the Deep Work. That could mean rearranging or removing meetings to open up longer blocks of Deep Work time, but it will make for an easier transition between “meeting mode” and other activities. Aim for a minimum of two-hour blocks for Deep Work. 

Manage burnout to reduce attrition

Amid market uncertainty and the so-called “Great Resignation,” organizations should be extra cautious of attrition and its potential business impact.

When resources are precious, retaining your people becomes even more important. To minimize attrition as much as possible, focus on the common causes of burnout and how to respond to them. Does your team lack Deep Work time? Are they often interrupted by meetings, chats, and unplanned work? Were any projects added mid-sprint?

Attrition isn’t inevitable. You can take steps to prevent burnout, making sure your dev teams have the time and resources to do their jobs sustainably. For example, don’t glorify long hours. If your devs feel like they’re “always on” — working after hours and on weekends — work with them to improve load balancing and remove roadblocks during the workday. And we already talked about the importance of Deep Work to the dev team’s health and productivity.  

Be purposeful in how you help your developers prevent and recover from burnout. It may not stop all of them from leaving, but at least they won’t be clamoring for the exit.

See More: Collaboration is Key to Improving Efficiency in Your Organization

Make collaboration meaningful

How many times have you been in a one-on-one or retrospective meeting where it feels like there is no clear agenda, purpose, or action items? For teams looking to make the most of their resources, meaningful collaboration means coming prepared, moving with purpose, and walking away with actionable takeaways. Use data to guide one-on-ones and empower your team, ensuring everyone has access to the same metrics. Team debriefs as retros should focus on improving processes to get more done rather than trying to remember what went wrong and who was to blame. 

See More: Burnout Is Real: Is It Affecting You and Your Organization?

Reduce the busy work

Many dev managers find themselves completing monthly spreadsheets to report on work done for tax capitalization. Manually estimating this data has two big challenges, even worse in tight economic times. First, the time spent manually collecting capitalization data for engineering and finance is now more precious than ever. Automating this process can allow your dev team to focus on product delivery when it matters the most. And beyond the time saved, accurately reporting on capitalization activities can return even bigger savings in R&D credits, which can improve your cash position, monthly burn, and overall runway of the business when this is most in need.

In summary, a bear market can benefit businesses, as it forces management to ensure people are working on the right priorities and doing so effectively and sustainably. Aim to create a culture where data drive your team’s work, collaboration is meaningful, and busy work is minimized. 

At the end of the day, when given time to focus on their work at the top business goals, people (especially product builders) are more likely to feel a sense of job satisfaction. In contrast, giving someone misaligned goals to work on the wrong products and doing that with minimal time — between ineffective meetings and busy work — is a surefire way to increase burnout and potential attrition.

Which best practices have you followed to reduce burnout in your engineering team? Share with us on FacebookOpens a new window , TwitterOpens a new window , and LinkedInOpens a new window . We’d love to know!

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