This post is part three in a series exploring glue work – what it means, who does it, why, and how managers can give glue work the respect it deserves. If you haven’t already, read parts one and two here.
The first step in understanding the impact of glue work on an engineering team is knowing what glue work looks like in the first place. In part one of this series, we break this down. Here’s a recap:
Glue work is what a worker does when she chooses to participate in a team offsite event. Glue work is offering emotional support to a new hire who is feeling overwhelmed and lost. Glue work is helping create onboarding materials for new hires. Unexpectedly, glue work isn’t usually anyone’s job, but it’s the stuff that holds everything together. It’s how things get done. It’s critical.
Today we’re taking a closer look at the manager and leader responsibilities around glue work (as opposed to the worker concerns, which we covered in part two).
Who does glue work?
As a manager, you likely have an awareness of who on your team is picking up glue work. It’s that person or a handful of people you know you can count on to stay late or step up or fill in. You can imagine these people right now while you’re reading this. These people tend to be more junior and are often women. They are competent, driven, and motivated to help when they see that it’s needed.
But here’s the thing: Most glue work is actually your responsibility. It would be best to either do it yourself or identify and assign glue work tasks and activities as appropriate. For the right worker, some glue work can mean a step up in responsibility and recognition, and career growth. For other workers, glue work slows them down and distracts them from their career goals.
Are there glue work dangers?
Yes. Here’s one scenario you’ll want to avoid: Glue work is consistently picked up by a couple of people on your team. One, Alexis, is particularly skilled at recognizing what needs to happen for the coding team to move at top speed. She helps troubleshoot, researches new tools independently, holds informal training sessions, and is always ready to help a teammate. While she’s doing this, she has less time for her assigned work, the coding that she’s getting paid for, and that she’s accountable for. At her annual review, you have to admit that she hasn’t been delivering according to their role responsibilities. Sure, her other work (glue work) undoubtedly helps the team succeed, but it’s not part of her purview. What to do?
Another scenario is a worker who picks up glue work because the tasks need to be completed, but she doesn’t really enjoy doing them. They’re not part of her career vision. But since nobody else steps up, she continues to be the point person for activities and tasks that don’t fall into her job description. She becomes resentful that she is unrecognized for this contribution that is so critical. This attitude harms the entire team, and while they can see what’s happening, they have no idea how to fix it.
OUTCOMES: In one scenario, you find it hard to quantify and justify the person's value to reward them properly; in the other scenario, they quit...
What’s a leader to do?
The job of a leader is to take care of the team so the team can focus on doing their best work. The leader ensures the workers have everything they need to be successful. This includes creating a safe and respectful environment, nurturing a culture of diversity and inclusion, making space for everyone’s voice in meetings, and bringing donuts to scrums as needed.
In tackling the glue work conundrum, the most important thing for a manager is to recognize that there is work to be done that doesn’t belong to a specific person. (For a list of example glue work tasks, see Glue Work Part 1.) These are tasks that require human focus, energy, and time. They are necessary and important tasks that facilitate the team's overall success; ignoring these tasks isn’t an option.
Once you’ve recognized that this glue work exists, make a list of all the tasks and activities that fall into this category. You might invite everyone on your team to contribute to this list. To establish parameters for the list, glue work is defined as tasks and activities that contribute to the team’s success but that isn’t assigned to anyone specifically. Some glue work is shared evenly (such as attending anniversary lunches together), and some is not (such as helping interview job candidates). It might be helpful to make two lists to account for these different tiers.
Remember, keeping the team working and successful is your responsibility. Don’t delegate it all, and expect the team to do it happily. A team doing too much glue work could be a symptom that you are not doing the right things for your team. Reevaluate your focus.
Make the glue work… work.
Next, take a look at the list and identify which tasks you can take on. This should be the vast majority of the items on the list. Circle them. These are yours. Remember, it’s your job to enable your workers to do their best work. Removing the burden of glue work is the quickest, most surefire way of doing this.
Now identify which workers are interested in critical non-coding work that facilitates team success. Which tasks or activities on your list align with their capabilities and interests? Have a conversation with these workers to find out whether they’d like to take these tasks on. If the answer is yes, write these tasks into their job description. Include the tasks in their performance reviews. Recognize the worker publicly for these tasks and demonstrate respect for the work outside the normal developer’s purview.
If one of these workers is interested in pursuing even more glue work, which is common for people who have project manager chops, facilitate that move. Make adjustments on the team so that this person can get more experience in this area. Offer to pay for project management courses or training. You are taking care of your people so they can do their best work.
This changes things.
Having an awareness about what’s happening on your team is the key that can unlock more productivity and harmony. Glue work has been happening forever, whether you had a label for it or not. Identifying it, giving it the respect and consideration it deserves, and being deliberate about who does it, will change your team systems for the better.
Botany.io is a smart virtual coach designed to help software engineering and managers professionally grow and improve their skills. We can help you get a handle on how you’re spending your time at work and show you how it’s helping or hurting your career opportunities.