How to protect Deep Work for your engineering teams

Do your teams have enough time to actually scale your product? Jason Griffith, senior software engineer at Uplevel, shares why Deep Work is critical to innovation and how to achieve it.
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Jason Griffith, Senior Software Engineer at Uplevel

Software engineers are building innovative solutions to complex problems, which is no trivial task. It takes time and brainpower to build something useful — while hitting deadlines. If your engineering teams’ focus is fragmented and diffused, you may have trouble getting things deployed on time.

Software engineers need Deep Work, uninterrupted time to focus on their main delivery goals. At Uplevel, we measure Deep Work as unbroken time blocks of two or more hours during a normal working day. That means fewer group meetings, chat messages, and other interruptions to pull your teams off course. 

Here are my tips for creating and protecting Deep Work time, and why doing so is extremely beneficial to hitting your delivery goals. 

Why Deep Work matters

Why should engineering leaders care about Deep Work? It’s an effectiveness concern. The opposite of Deep Work is context switching, which is when your engineers are constantly changing focus from one task to another. Just like in multi-threaded programming, each switch has an overhead. As your engineers transition between tasks, neither is moving forward, and making progress on either one becomes difficult. 

It’s also a human concern. Engineers want to build substantial and meaningful things, but that requires time to focus. Interruptions can pull your engineers away from work on high-impact projects and business priorities. As those interruptions build up throughout the day, so do your teams’ backlogs, increasing cycle time and burnout risk.

How to create Deep Work

Engineering team calendars are often so packed with meetings — and their days with interruptions — that there is no room left for long stretches of focused work. It takes intentional effort to create that time. While you should empower your engineering teams to express their concerns and protect their own Deep Work, those changes start with leadership. 

With that in mind, here are some tips for helping create Deep Work time for your teams. Depending on your company rules and team agreements, some may be more feasible than others. But these are all strategies we have used successfully at Uplevel:

  1. Encourage your engineers and managers to set aside calendar blocks for Deep Work, making them visible to all. Better yet, schedule team- or company-wide Deep Work blocks throughout the day. 
  2. Work with your managers to create a meeting-free or meeting-light day. If your teams can’t find time for Deep Work each workday, start with one. 
  3. Make meetings contiguous, scheduling them at the beginning or end of the day. Practice this with your engineering managers, and help them do the same with their teams. 
  4. Cut down on the number and length of meetings. Make sure meeting agendas are well defined with takeaways listed, helping invitees determine if their presence is needed. 

How to protect Deep Work

It’s not enough to just create space for Deep Work to happen. Interactions and distractions fill our days, pulling us away from our work. That’s not always a bad thing, but it can make it harder to get things done. 

Here’s how you can help your teams protect their Deep Work:

  1. Establish rules for how your engineering teams handle incoming communications. It will make it easier for them to decide when to break Deep Work to answer chat messages and emails. For example, give your teams the option to pause notifications during Deep Work hours without anyone expecting a response — assuming others can still get through for critical requests.
  2. Encourage managers to set up a rotating Responder role for their teams. That person can respond promptly and delegate work appropriately without breaking everyone’s focus.
  3. Rethink how your teams are allocating their time. If KTLO tasks and bug fixes are pulling them away, work with them to shift time and headcount toward your high-priority investment areas.
  4. Be mindful of the opportunity cost of context switching. Bouncing between goals isn’t free. Make sure everyone understands the impact of interruptions on Deep Work and delivery goals. Quantifying that impact will make it easier to help your teams improve.
  5. Interrupt them less. You ping a manager for progress updates, they ask their engineers, and suddenly the entire team has switched focus. Consider this question before you reach out: Is it critical to product function, or are you just curious? An engineering insights solution such as Uplevel can get you the information you need without slowing down your teams with questions and surveys.

As an engineering leader, give your teams as much Deep Work as they can get. That’s how innovation happens. It’s up to you and your managers to provide enough time for focused work and complex problem solving, which are essential to hitting delivery goals.

Want to empower your teams to create and protect their own Deep Work time? In my recent webinar, The Dev Soapbox: Protecting Deep Work, I provided additional tips for engineers and managers. Share the on-demand recording with your teams to make improving Deep Work an organization-wide effort. 

This post is by Jason Griffith, senior software engineer at Uplevel.