Facilitating connections for coworkers

In this four-part series, we’ve started exploring how engineering managers can impact employee retention, company culture, collaboration, and productivity by helping engineers feel a sense of belonging at work. 

To recap, there are four core elements to feeling a sense of belonging:

  1. being seen for your unique contributions; 
  2. connection to your coworkers; 
  3. support in your daily work and career development; and 
  4. being proud of your organization’s values and purpose.

In our last post, we discussed the importance of helping ensure engineers are seen for their unique contributions.  This week, we’re taking a closer look at how you, as an engineering manager, can help facilitate connections for engineers on your team.  

Connection to Your Coworkers 

When you feel connected with coworkers, you have genuine, positive interactions with peers, managers, and leadership.

As an engineering manager, you can help to facilitate connections by:

  • Asking engineers to write and share User Guides or Journey Lines with their team - While working together at an EdTech company in 2018 a Data Analyst, Alexis Johnson-Gresham, introduced me to this format for writing personal user guides and provided me with the template shared above. I later discovered Journey Lines and successfully tried them with my team, too. User Guides help individuals convey how they prefer to work, collaborate, and communicate with their teammates.  Journey Lines involve plotting one’s most impactful life events and give insight into what an individual values.  The information shared for both of these activities can be as personal or private as an engineer wishes, depending on how comfortable they are sharing personal and professional details. Coworkers will naturally find commonalities through this process and better understand how each other prefers to work.  They can be a great catalyst for building connections when a new team is formed or new team members join.
  • Ensuring Pull Request (PR) reviews help create a psychologically safe environment - PR reviews should be happening in a timely manner, so as not to block team members from shipping impactful work. They should also be created in a way that’s kind to the reviewer.  I appreciate this post by Aimee Ault, an engineer I worked with at a former workplace.  It covers what constitutes good PRs and helps explain why providing context for engineering peers is important.  Helping engineers successfully help each other creates a connection and cultivates collaboration. 

    Just as important, is the review feedback itself.  Clarity and kindness are crucial.  The number of back-and-forths on a PR review before it’s merged could be an indicator of:
  1. the work not being chunked up enough into smaller PRs, making the review much more complex and time-consuming,
  2. more skill-based or procedural training is needed for the PR author - is there a code quality issue or an issue with not aligning with workplace standards? 
  3. more skill-based or procedural training is needed for the PR reviewer - are they making perfection the enemy of good enough or pushing for personal preferences? Or...
  4. an interpersonal conflict exists on the team - is there a collaboration or communication problem? Lengthy PR reviews that go back-and-forth could lead to an engineer feeling their contributions aren’t valued and feeling they don’t belong in some way.  Identify the root of the issue and address it.
  • Coordinating hack-a-thon or bug smashing events - Holding these types of team events is a great way to connect engineers who don’t typically work together.   In addition to helping build and grow new connections, this is a great way for engineers to share their unique contributions with teammates and cross-train. Also, hack-a-thons can lead to innovation. It’s a triple win! 

    If your company is less focused on innovation, you could consider hosting a bug-a-palooza event and unite the team around an effort to burn down the backlog of bugs or tackle technical debt.  At a prior place of employment, our engineering teams had a 1-hour monthly bug bash before releases and awarded prizes to engineers who found the most significant and unique bugs. 

    There’s a lot of camaraderie to be gained by huddling around an event to drive product quality or innovation.

What to Avoid

  • Using a one-size-fits-all approach to helping facilitate connections.  Understand that engineers, like all humans, may be either introverted or extroverted, more public or private about what they choose to share, and may require less or more social interaction to feel a sense of belonging.  Not all team members need high levels of social interaction to feel connected.  They may have solid connections with one or two coworkers that they built through long term asynchronous communication and still feel a strong sense of belonging.  Others may need to be more synchronously involved and connect at multiple levels with multiple people on multiple teams.  Don’t assume an engineer doesn’t feel connected because they don’t want to attend a potluck lunch, a virtual coffee, or an after hours event.  They may not be comfortable in these situations or they may have other commitments outside of work.  Connectedness doesn’t always equate to being social with team members.

Although the need for connection varies for some when it comes to creating a sense of belonging, team-building activities are always a wonderful, optional opportunity to introduce to your team.

Next week, we’ll look at building belonging through ensuring engineers feel supported in their daily work and career development.