Assigning Work Equitably

A new year’s resolution for managers

Christine Chapman
Jan 5 · 6 min read

How do you assign work on your team? Do you directly assign work to individuals, do team members select work in priority order, or is it more freeform? What about the work that’s not tracked in your project management software: scheduling meetings, planning team outings, or documentation?

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Photo by Standsome Worklifestyle on Unsplash

Growth on a software engineering team come down to a variety of factors, but a key one is opportunity: the projects and responsibilities team members are given and how closely they align to what the company or role values. Without mechanisms in place, non-growth-oriented work often falls on junior women and BIPOC in tech and can hold back technical growth and eventually promotions. Without realizing it, you may be creating inequitable work distribution especially when you have very few junior or newer members of the team. These team members can end up without any high-impact projects and in the long-term not grow at your company.

Tanya Reilly coined the term “Glue Work” in a presentation recorded on her blog. She defined glue work as the work that holds a team together, but isn’t often valued as promotable. Sometimes this work isn’t even valued as technical.

A common scenario is a junior woman joins the team, identifies gaps, develops great relationships with dependent teams, implements key process improvements, and writes a lot of technical documentation. The team improves as a result of her work, but her teammates don’t see her contributions as technical enough, because she’s not spending enough time coding or writing impressive design docs. Does that sound like anyone you know?

The reason managers and women engineers so often fall into this trap is that initially it seems successful. The team member doing the non-promotable work may be fulfilled and see immediate impact, but in the long-term employees who are not working on the projects that are valued by the team and company can see their careers stagnate. The solution isn’t as simple as halting that work. In fact a lot of this work may be very important to the team’s success and the lack of value associated with it is not warranted. In other cases, something is just not important and it might be best for the team member to pause that work.

To understand how it plays out on your team, categorize work on your team into four quadrants along the axes Important and Valued. Let’s define Important work as work related to their role that has a large positive impact on the team, even if it’s not traditionally measurable. Let’s define Valued work as work highly-valued in reviews or as evidence of being ready for the next level. On a software engineering team code written, pull request stats, and complicated design documents are typically highly valued, while being scrummaster, building relationships with other teams, writing documentation, or improving the onboarding process, may not be valued.

Design Reviews and Coding are important and valued while documentation and organizing meetings is undervalued.
Design Reviews and Coding are important and valued while documentation and organizing meetings is undervalued.

Your team or company may value work differently, but the example above illustrates the gap between overvalued non-important work and undervalued important work. Mentoring an intern is likely way more impactful and challenging than creating a trivial script, but you’re probably more likely to remember the person who created the small script as a tinkerer who’s always helping out the team. Your senior engineers are unlikely to notice all the work that went into improving the onboarding process, they not directly benefiting from it.

1. Value the Important work

A lot of glue work is hugely impactful for the team and the individual. We should reward them as we would other important work especially when it aligns with an individual’s strengths or interests. Sometimes this work just needs the perfect narrative to capture why it was so impactful. It’s easy to write a narrative for delivering an important technical project, it’s harder to write it for a process improvement.

Beyond performance reviews and other written documentation, train the team to appropriately value the work that benefits the team. People are naturally inclined to overvalue work they are good at and undervalue work they struggle with. Part of the role of the manager is to make sure the team is correctly calibrated. If you’re seeing some work on the team consistently undervalued, find objective ways to demonstrate its value or celebrate the impact, leaning on role descriptions and company values whenever possible.

Another challenge can be visibility. Many engineers, especially those who code all day, have blinders on that prevent them from seeing the success of other engineers on the team. As a manager it’s part of your role to ensure your team’s work is seen by their peers. Grow their visibility through presentations, strategic projects, sharing design documents, and highlighting their results in meetings.

Sometimes this work expands beyond your team when your skip-level manager needs to be convinced about a promotion. Write out the narrative, have them shadow the work being done, collect quotes on the impact, or find other ways to measure.

2. Divide up the rest

Some work is simply not valuable for anyone’s growth on your team. This includes organizing team events, small maintenance tasks, or deprecating a small feature. First assign the tasks to the folks mostly likely to learn something new (perhaps newer hires or people who could grow their leadership skills). Then, create a rotation for the remaining work. Spreading out the work also helps the people least likely to volunteer. By seeing the complexities that go into the work, you give them the opportunity to automate it or remove the obstacle which they wouldn’t be able to do if they stayed isolated from it. You also ensure your junior engineers aren’t prevented from being promoted because they’re stuck with all the maintenance work.

If you have a prioritized backlog that translates to a prioritized sprint, you may find certain members of your team always choose the highest-priority task (even if its glue work), while others take on the largest tasks regardless of priority. Dividing work fairly means setting up structures on your team to either ensure everyone sticks to the priorities. Empower the team to recognize and push back when issues arise.

Some glue work may originate outside your team and you may not always have visibility. Sometimes women engineers and URMs are asked by leaders to take on additional roles planning events, interviewing, or mentoring in support of diversity & inclusion initiatives at your company. Again, ensure work is appropriately valued and work with your team and leadership to push back when the work is getting in the way of your team member’s growth.

Look for early warning signs that the team is not valuing the work from one of your engineers and seek to understand why. Sometimes the issue is distributing the work and sometimes the solution is increasing their visibility or helping to quantify the impact. Other times it’s redirecting the individual to work on a broader set of projects. The earlier you can identify this, the sooner you can change course. By distributing work equitably and celebrating the impact of all work, even when it is not traditionally valued, you will help your team grow.

What’s one action you can take this week to more equitably assign work on your team?

If you found this resource helpful, check out the other resources I’ve written through Changing the Story related to onboarding, growth, and retaining women in tech. Changing the Story is on a mission to improve early career retention of women in tech.

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