What really motivates developers, makes them productive and keeps them around?

I talk to a lot of companies who have software developers on staff, many who tend to have a higher turnover rate than they would like.  Why does this happen and how can employers avoid this?

Employers often think the main motivation for employees is money.  This may be the draw initially, but it is not what keeps people with your company.  Employers should think from the employees perspective, not what little they can give an employee and keep them around.

The obvious draws are:

  • Good salary, fair and in line with the industry
  • Benefits – adequate vacation, sick and personal time
  • Health Insurance
  • 401K, to a lesser degree

The real motivators are:

  • Interesting work
  • Great work environment, especially working from home.  Working from home is probably the number one draw for many, I for one think this is a great way for an employer to show how much they trust employees.  Today’s technology is so good that phone calls, chat and video conferencing with applications like Skype make the employee seem just like they are in the office.
  • Flexible hours – don’t dictate 9-5, allow to work they hours they want as long as the work is done and they employee is available for conference calls.

Interesting Work

Understand what your employees are interested in, what they are passionate about and let them do that type of work.  A person who is passionate about something will excel.  Don’t give your hot-shot developer a fancy title and then expect them to fix co-worker’s email,  just because I can.

Google is rated as the best company to work, again.  Why?  Well, things like taking 20% of your time to work on what you want to work on.  This is one way Google gets great new products, it’s a win-win.  Why can’t others companies get this?  Learn from the success of good companies and mimic them, it will cost less in the long run.

Working from Home

This one is the #1 reason to work for yourself and choose where you work, but not everyone can do this and employers need to understand how employees benefit. The other option for an employee is find a job at a company who understands the importance and benefits of this.  Read/Write Web had a great article called The “Work From Home” Generation that outlines the benefits to both the employee and the employer.

1. No commute

If you live in the suburbs and work in the city, it is likely that it takes you 30 minutes or more each day to get to and from work. In the particularly busy metropolitan areas like New York, Washington, DC, and Atlanta, you are lucky if your commute is under an hour each way. Commuting takes time and energy (spending time in traffic is particularly draining). It is routine and boring and rarely productive or relaxing. Having no commute simply means more time to do things that you could not do otherwise.

For most people the ability to spend more time with their spouses and children is invaluable. Even a simple thing like having lunch and dinner together is big and game changing. In addition to spending time with your family, working from home makes it easier to exercise. It is a no-brainer to trade off the hour that you spend squeezed on the bus for an hour lifting weights or running on the treadmill.

2. Flexibility

Working from home likely implies flexible hours. Unless you have specific meetings scheduled you can take off a few times during the day as long as you get things done. Taking kids to an activity, getting shopping or errands out of the way, and enjoying a run outside or in the gym are the things that can be incorporated into the work-from-home schedule. For a lot of people, combining exercise and work is a challenge because their bodies do not respond well to a morning exercise regimen and they get home too late to go to the gym in the evening. Having flexible hours is a huge benefit for these people because they can exercise during the time of the day which suits them best.

3. Saving money and the environment

In addition to being able to spend more time with the family, having no commute has another big benefit – financial savings. With the cost of gasoline going through the roof, not having to drive is important for everyone. And we are talking big savings. If a tank of gas costs you $50 and lasts a week, cutting that in half gets you a cool $100 a month. The work-from-home folks also save money on food. Even in the cheapest corporate cafeterias lunch is generally going to cost around $7. At home, if you are stingy, you can spend $2 on a tasty lunch. This is easily another $100 per month is savings.

Working from home also has a global environmental benefit. By commuting less we save energy and reduce pollution. This is one of those rare moments when humans are in harmony with the planet – what is good for us, is good for the environment as well.

4. Increased productivity

Perhaps one of the most surprising benefits of working from home is that it can actually increase productivity. Assuming that your home office environment is conducive to work and you are able to focus, more work is going to get done. If you can’t focus on work with home distractions (kids, lure of TV, etc.), you may want to rethink working at home in the first place.

A typical office environment is noisy, people are talking, phones are ringing, co-workers are coming by to chat, and there are always crowds near the coffee and soda machines. At home, these distractions are not going to be present. In addition, when working from home you will be focused more on your work instead of office politics. Playing politics and kissing up to the boss is not easily done over the phone, so people will get more work done instead.

I personally despise commuting, the traffic is getting worse daily and making it hard to show up for a day of work already stressed.  The return trip home isn’t less stressful, making home life sometimes difficult.  I am also a veteran of 20+ years of software development and getting shoved in a cubicle is demeaning.  Sorry employers, cubicles degrades morale.

Flexible Hours

Employers shouldn’t dictate starting everyday by 9:00 on the dot.  Developers know what their doing and will get the work done, meeting times are exceptions.

Successful companies are going the way of the web worker, you will too unless you enjoy the turn over and having to rehire all the time.  Companies like 37Signals operates this way and it works for them, the proof is how successful they are.  Their blog documents many of these key principles of hiring and keeping people.

These simple suggestions are not rocket science, they are commonsense way to treat people, in this case developers, right.  Companies need to adjust the way the interact with employees and contractors, they need to be treated like they are wanted, trusted and a long-term investment.    If not, enjoy the turnover.

UPDATE: A regular reader pointed out a very good complimentary post about the productivity of developers being home versus a cube.

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6 responses to “What really motivates developers, makes them productive and keeps them around?

  1. Rob, these are points worth repeating. Chuck Hoffman has a nice post about why programmers are more productive at home, sort of a nice companion piece to this one.

  2. Hey Dan, thanks. I deal with this all the time when working on some of my consulting gigs and people want you sitting in a cube just for the sake of it. So I get to sit in a cube, unhappy, doing the same type of work I would do at home, except…did I mention, unhappy? So I am less productive in the unhappy cube.

    Thanks for the link too.

  3. Cubes still beat the hell out of the open-space, though. I think I mentioned that in there 😀

  4. @Chuck Yeah, the cube comment is mine. I agree, cubes are better than open space from a privacy point of view.

    Still, I would rather be home.

  5. It’s been said that cubes give you a sense of isolation, without any usable privacy, and I think that’s true. Open space is better, as long as it’s dedicated to the development team, and doesn’t share with sales guys and that admin who’s always joking with his sister on the phone.

    In fact, some agile processes explicitly recommend open space (again, within the focused team) because it improves communication. Ideally, you have a room of about 500-750 sqft, and you fit a feature team of 5-7 developers in there, with some whiteboard and reading space.

  6. @Jon Very good points. I think your right, cubes do little for real privacy. At one of my clients we work in cubes when onsite and the distractions from the talking in the room is hard to get good work done.

    I can’t say I have ever worked on a project in open space. I guess in the right environment it would work out but I can say it sounds very distracting.

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