We need to talk about your Q3 roadmap
Hi, managers! Pull up a chair.
Thanks to the privilege of working as a coach, I have an outsider’s view into what’s happening for your teammates.
There’s stuff that you’re already aware of: folks are exhausted and depressed from the ongoing pandemic and the protracted changes we’ve needed to make about how we live our lives. On top of that, there are yet again more headlines about police violence and the murder of Black people, hate crimes against Asian-Americans, and increasing protests for justice. We’ve sacrificed a lot in the last year, and members of minoritized groups continue to experience renewed harm and trauma, too.
Your coworkers are burned out, scared, and angry. It’s adding up, and I’m not sure if you see what’s coming.
It’s likely that a bunch of your teammates are eyeing a time when they can take extended time off in Q3. Maybe they’ve already requested vacation time for later this summer. In America, where Biden’s set the “goal of getting the nation closer to normal by July 4th,” many folks are planning trips to see family, or just take a real vacation for the first time in a long time.
Your teammates might also be looking to leave. You may have seen more folks talking about job hoppers on the market; you might have also seen threads about how new hires’ compensation packages have significantly increased at big tech companies within the last few months. Folks are definitely doing a ton of job searching for better opportunities and sometimes looking for change when so much has been the same, and out of our control.
But I’m also talking to more and more folks who are considering quitting without anything lined up. (There’s enormous privilege in this act; tech workers can often save up enough cash to give themselves a break.)
While most folks are usually too nervous to take this risk, they’re certainly talking about it more than I’ve ever seen before. And it can be easier to give YOURSELF time off than hoping your company gives you the time you need to recover from burnout, if you have the privilege to do so.
Your coworkers—and maybe you, too!—are at the end of their rope. As people complete their vaccination schedule (becoming “fully vested” is what a friend of mine has been calling it!), as the world around us continues to burn, and as the product roadmap chugs along, something’s gotta give. And I think it’s going to be your feature plans—because the humans behind them need and deserve a big, long break and time to recuperate.
So, okay. What can we do to prepare while making room for our teammates to do what they need?
Adjust the roadmap.
You can try to influence decision makers at your organization to adjust timelines, oncall rotations, vacation capacities, and more. Late Q2/Q3 timelines will need to have LOTS of breathing room, because you work with human beings, and they need and deserve the support of leaders who treat them as such.
How might those decision makers respond to this idea? So far, in my conversations with senior leaders about this same topic, I’ve heard the following pushback:
- “The summer is normally our quiet customer season. So it’s the perfect time for us to ship stuff!”
- “Nah, I think the team is fine. Everybody’s so excited about the world returning to normal.”
- “The company is on shaky ground due to the pandemic though, and we need to keep at this pace.”
To these leaders: I think your risk calculation is off.
What’s more risky: losing the people you’ve invested in and needing to start up a lengthy hiring and onboarding process which will cost you a ton of time, or slowing down the pace and creating more breathing room?
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess: retaining the folks you already have, while extending roadmap timelines and giving people ways to take more time off, will save you more time and money in the long run.
And, again, I think you’re gonna see a lot of vacation requests whether you initiate this, or not.
If you’re a middle manager, you’ll likely need to use positive influence skills (I have a workshop on this coming up!) to convince folks with power to adjust their plans. When you speak to decision makers about these topics, recognize that their focus may not be swayed by language around team health, burnout recovery or prevention. Please feel free to steal the below language as you speak with them, and choose phrasing that directly relates to what they are most focused on or concerned about:
“We’re optimizing for getting Project Zebra out the door to our users ASAP, because we need to drive [metric that the decision maker cares about]. What can we adjust, organizationally, to give it the highest chance of true success?”
“Looking back on historical hiring and onboarding timelines for the past year, we’re averaging a 6- to 9-month lead time before a brand new hire gets fully ramped up. That’s 6 to 9 months we don’t have. If we lose any single person because they’re burned out, we’ve then lost way more than just the three months we could have given them as paid leave.”
“Let’s run this as an experiment. We can plan some longer lead times and build cushion into our timelines as a starting place.”
“This is a job seeker’s market. If we want to make the hires we need to make right now, we need to have competitive leave time built in to our offer. And we need our interviewers to be able to honestly describe the work-life balance that our potential hires are looking for.”
It’s important to adjust folks’ support systems, too, not just their workload. For example, in addition to adjusting roadmaps, adjust your oncall rotation! To quote @ruppehill, it’s “not a bad time to make sure your oncall rotations can handle multiple people on vacation at once. And that your resident ‘hoarder of ancient secrets’ has written that shit down so they can take time off without getting pulled into an incident.”
Making these adjustments will have the added benefit of signaling to the people who need a bit of a break that they can take one without causing their team too much stress.
I’ll be honest: of all of the tips I provide in this newsletter, this is the only one that I think might help chip away at your teammates’ burnout. Burnout isn’t just about having too many things to do or not enough time to do them; it’s about lack of resources, support, and progress. A bit more vacation time, company-wide mandatory days, etc. won’t actually help most folks address their burnout. It hopefully will help you retain more folks in the long term, because it can demonstrate you recognize their very real human needs.
I’ve worked with a few companies who have solid sabbatical programs (3-6 months off, paid, after a certain number of years of working for the company). If you don’t have these programs in place yet, though, I don’t think this is the time to start. The amount of process involved is pretty high (offboarding, onboarding, plans for coverage, documentation of how it should work/who’s eligible, etc.).
Try one of the other ideas in this newsletter before you try to implement a brand new sabbatical process.
If you already have a sabbatical benefit at your organization, check in on the requirements and see if any could use a refresh. Look around and see who’s eligible, and remind them of this fact. The pandemic has thrown a lot of processes for a loop, so it’s the perfect opportunity to check in on potential improvements for existing procedures.
Give company-wide mandatory days off
I’ve recently heard about companies mandating company-wide time off days, where EVERYBODY at the company takes the same day off (hoping to help with burnout/pandemic breathing room). I asked folks on Twitter what their experience has been like with this experiment; click through to see all the replies to my tweet.
Some have found company-wide mandatory days off helpful:
“It’s been something collectively to look forward to, bank pto around and overall a great move. We paced days off, adjacent to weekends scattered throughout end of last and this year. It’s been great not to come back to those red bubbles.” —@Cheston
“It’s wonderful because you don’t have to worry about email piling up. Plus you don’t have to spend PTO when there’s nowhere you can go (which is one big thing stopping people from taking time off right now). We call them ‘recharge days.’” —@allisonsm7
“We’re off this Friday for one. Honestly, I’ve used most of them to run errands to busy places that I don’t want to do on the weekends, like Target and the DMV. Overall it’s been super for alleviating the stress of those activities to do them on a weekday.” —@lnxchk
But others have not:
“It’s a double edge sword. We’ve gone from every third Friday off to one ‘COVID holiday’ per month. Great to have these long weekends, but meetings and work are just consolidate into 4 very long days.” —@adrocknaphobia
“It did not, because nobody got extra time for deadlines :(“ —@lisa_van_gelder
“During the pandemic, this hasn’t really been that helpful for parents whose kids are doing remote schooling, because you wind up just helping your kids more with their school day.” —@yankeefinn
“Worth noting: everyone does not get that week off, some get to work with less staff where the majority of their resources are reduced, then they take time off later when everyone else is back. Kinda has the opposite effect for those folks.” —@ruppehill
Kim Crayton added:
“Even in ‘widget-making’ sectors, the job functions have shifted away from ‘you work your 8/hr and done’, making off time truly off…currently most roles require, even if unspoken, some level of processing, that’s more intense and outside of 8/hrs; which means, we’re always on
So, unless the organizational culture is built around discouraging the ‘always on’ mentality and, more importantly, not exploiting it, a day off, is really just time away from co-workers and not the mental and spiritual respite, it’s intended to be”
If you choose to try out company-wide mandatory time off days, follow Jean Hsu’s advice: “it’s been a ridiculously hard year for folks, so try not to message it as ‘so everyone can come back rejuvenated and restored.’” And there’s a ton more suggested tweaks to this idea in folks’ responses to my tweet, too!
Ronnie Chen’s TGECMF[Team Name]O
I adore Ronnie Chen’s Twitter thread on her “The Great Eventually Consistent Mandatory Funtime [Team Name] Offsite” practice. Here’s the gist:
“One I’m quite proud of creating is The Great Eventually Consistent Mandatory Funtime [Team Name] Offsite (TGECMFRO). I based the idea on happiness research & the fact that people who get unexpected money tend to splurge, and people who get extra time tend to use it on obligations.
So we created a team mandatory fun day, which allowed our distributed team to have a day of fun, and then share back their adventures with the team. When we explain the idea to new hires, everyone shares their personal slide decks.
- You are strictly forbidden from spending your offsite time on catching up on work, chores, or other obligations and commitments.
- Select an activity or activities that you would not otherwise have time to do that you find delightful, meaningful, serene, challenging, relaxing, amusing, awe-inspiring, satisfying, or intriguing. Additional adjectives permitted at EM’s discretion.
- You are not allowed to do anything during your offsite that gets your EM fired or reprimanded or causes HR to create a company wide rule”
There’s a ton more info in her thread (she answered people’s questions about it!), so I recommend you check it out.
Managers, I know you have a ton of plates in the air right now. I’m hopeful that by recognizing that the humans that work for and with you are about to be taking care of themselves by being off or away from work, you can get ahead and plan for this. Start by preparing for major adjustments to your roadmap, company leave policies, and other support you can offer your teammates.You have the power to make some real positive impact for your teammates.
If you’re wrestling with other aspects of how to lead through ongoing crises, check out my blog posts on things like handling the emotional weight of 1:1s, team grief, communicating big news to your team, and putting on your own oxygen mask first.