A Software Engineering Managers Guide to Doing More in Less Time

So you’re there.  You’ve convinced your team, your higher-ups, your fellow managers to try a shorter work week. Now what? 

A Software Engineering Managers Guide to Doing More in Less Time
The autumn sun setting over Bethesda, MD. Photo ©2023 Robin Monks.

So you’re there.  You’ve convinced your team, your higher-ups, your fellow managers to try a shorter work week. 

Now what? 

There are some immediate and basic scheduling issues to deal with.  “Which day do we drop?”  “How many hours per day?”

No Magic Answers 

These are necessary questions, but their answers depend on your situation.  Ideally, each workplace experiments to find what works best for their needs, adjusting as needed.

One option is to remove an entire day from the front, middle, or end of the typical Monday through Friday business week.  This can be done either on an individual, per-team, or per-location basis, depending on the exact nature and structure of the business.

For the sake of argument here, I will assume that you as the manager, and your team, will be sharing the same extra day off each week under your new schedule, with the expected work week dropping down to 32 hours or so.  This is illustrative, so that I can describe how you might do more with less time.

Water flows down over smooth rocks in a Pacific Northwest Lower Mainland forest.
Shannon Falls, BC circa 2018. Photo ©2023 Robin Monks.

Focusing the Work

The answer, mainly, is a matter of focus.  As Jeff Haden of Inc. aptly put it in 2021, “First, take a step back and create meaningful performance metrics. Set meaningful targets for tasks, projects, and deliverables. Determine what needs to get done.”

“But,” I hear my fellow managers say, “aren’t we always supposed to be doing that?” 

To which I say, “Yes, but now we need to do it for real!”

Here’s the thing: the shorter week’s inherent advantage is that we now have more time for the restful phases of our work-life balance.  The tricky part is making sure productivity doesn’t suffer from a scheduling crunch in exchange.

It’s up to us managers to make sure those well-rested employees have a clear sense of their priorities, as well as having someone to talk to when something is ambiguous, or when an unforeseen difficulty occurs.  (After all, shorter weeks don’t guarantee that the random chaos of life will be any less choppy.)

The good news is that the extra rest and unwinding can help a lot.  Well-rested employees can accomplish more with less time and may even feel incentivized by their situation.  (As Mr. Haden so colorfully put it, “If I know I get Mondays off as long as I work hard every Tuesday through Friday, I'm a lot more likely to kick ass.”)

With all of that in mind, let’s take our previously discussed ideas of efficiency, employee health, and work-life balance, and use them to streamline the week. 

Communicate Clearly, Timely, and Responsively

As a software engineering manager, fewer days worked means you have fewer workdays to dither before handing down instructions for the next stage of that project.  Be decisive, reduce scope if necessary, and put a little extra care on those messages and outlines to make sure you are clear.  Later, check in politely to ensure the objectives were understood.  The more you practice doing this well, the better off you will be in the long run.

Remember, if one of your subordinates wastes a day because you didn’t provide clear and timely guidance, they’ve now wasted 25% of their work week in a 32-hour model, rather than 20% in a 40-hour model.  The problems of managerial inefficiency will accumulate more quickly, but the dividends of doing it well will be obvious in that extra day of rest.

Establish and defend each project’s boundaries.  Scope creep can be an invasive vine, and you don’t have time to let it spread unmanaged.  If the scope of a project does need to change, change it formally and make sure the team understands.   Get their input, too, on how feasible certain changes are and whether this might necessitate a shift of deadlines.

Although time is of the essence, continue to be careful not to micromanage.  Micromanaged people do not have room to be awesome!  The delicate art here is to present clear objectives and expectations, continuously, so that more work gets done in the time you have.

Be there for your team, as the person whose job it is to know where the project is heading.  Chart the course, and be ready to answer questions.

You won’t get it right every time, but you can learn to get it right most of the time, and that will help your team make the most of their time.

Beach Enjoyers at Alouette Lake at Golden Ears Provincial Park, BC. Circa 2016. Photo ©2023 Robin Monks.

Trim the Bloat

Most of the above dealt with things the manager should do for the shorter week to perform well.  Now, let’s take a step back and look at how we can improve efficiency by reducing the number of hours spent on certain activities.

Firstly, there’s busy work: all those easy but time-consuming little tasks that you are expected to perform, but you can never be sure if they really matter.  Some jobs come with far more of these than others.  (Chances are, your team has strong opinions about what tasks feel like busy work to them, so if you’re ever unsure, feel free to ask!)

Within the 40-hour week, busy work may serve as a half-baked break from one’s primary job role, allowing the worker to “zone out” and partially pivot away from their usual mindset.  This is suboptimal relaxation pivoting, but at least it has some upside.  The 32-hour work week deliberately gives a day back to the worker to allow much better recuperation to happen, so that function of busy work isn’t as relevant here.

With that in mind, if busy work really needs doing, define it as part of a certain person’s job, and find ways to automate more of it.  Your four-day week will feel better without those tasks nibbling at the available hours.

Likewise, if management is addicted to holding superfluous meetings, implementing the 32-hour week may mean letting go of some of those.  You probably don’t need that one, extra-pointless weekly meeting that is secretly an excuse for everyone to zone out.  You should be doing that in a more comfortable place, and now you have time to do so!

Remember, shorter weeks aren’t just about employees: management should remember to unwind properly on their days off, and then come in ready to lead. 

Speaking of leadership, let’s talk a bit about (relative) overtime, and its benefits and possible pitfalls in this new system.

The Occasional Extra Day

When a team is already working 40 hours, coming in on weekends and staying late every night to meet deadlines can damage long-term productivity.  We’ve touched on the reasons for this in prior articles, and we know it’s not good.

To make overtime healthy, the first step is to stop thinking of it as an ongoing strategy that pressures employees for more output, and to start thinking of it as a situational tool that lets a team adapt to real, emergent needs by going a little harder, temporarily, and then resting.

So, how does the shorter week help?  What options does it give us back?

Most obviously, it gives us that extra day, but it secretly gives us more than that.

One reason overtime becomes toxic in the 40-hour week is that the extra hours compensate for inefficiencies in workflow.  Efficiency improves when you take the steps to make a 32-hour week functional: trimming the work week down to its essentials, removing pointless busy work, and having clearly defined goals, roles, and ways forward.

In other words, if you’ve trimmed the week down to its essentials and have obtained the flexibility to adjust deadlines when needed, then you probably won’t be asking the team to take on extra hours unless there’s a well-defined goal that seems worth the effort.

In that context, there’s nothing inherently bad about invoking the extra day occasionally.  If you foresee your team needing a whole extra day to get a project done, it can be penciled in as a focused, one-off example of collective overtime.  Maybe you’ll get it all done ahead of time and won’t need the day, but if you do need it, now it’s there.

Such a strategy incentivizes the team to work hard on the project (because if they finish it early, they keep their usual extra day off), but they also won’t have the core of their weekend disrupted even if that extra day is needed.  It’s a healthy balance between hustle and basic human compassion.

In any case, time is a resource, so use it as you might any other: respectfully and with thoughtful consideration.   Communicate with your team ahead of time, be clear, and take feedback.

With that said, I will also warn against abuses of the above ideas, because the potential is there.

Cautions About (Relative) Overtime

Merely transitioning to a shorter normal week does not remove the temptation to push workers into taking on extra responsibilities or working longer, while potentially underpaying them for their efforts.  If anything, it’s wise to watch for these issues more when adopting the shorter week, since the abusive language will often be subtler upon first hearing it.  (“You’re only being asked to do the full week again.  What’s the problem?”)

Do not set your team up for a shorter week and then too frequently (or condescendingly) ask them to give you a forty-hour week.  This might sound obvious, but keep watch, as the sheer force of old expectations can lead to it happening by accident, even without added pressures from corporate greed.

Look out as well for individual team members who are too willing to take on more work and to let the job eat into that extra day they’re supposed to have.  If that’s happening too often, then the point of the shorter setup is being missed, and they probably aren’t truly pivoting out of work mode.  Granted, some roles may remain better suited to a 40-hour schedule even in the context of an overall team that works shorter, but that’s something to figure out and formalize.  Don’t let one person’s extra days get silently and unofficially consumed.

Sunset from the coast of Deer Island, New Brunswick, Canada. Circa 2008. Photo ©2023 Robin Monks.

In Closing: Some Healthy Pessimism

A shorter work week is a powerful thing, but it is also delicate.  It takes skill and thought to use well, and it demands empathy and attentiveness from management.  Sometimes, it can be hard to know if you are pushing hard enough, or if you are pushing too hard.  Perhaps higher-ups aren’t quite “getting” the four-day week after it is implemented.

This demands care and effort on management’s part.  When in doubt, always remember that you cannot idly trust corporate structures to take care of their employees and not abuse, overwork, or underpay them.  This is not to say that corporate structures are bad, but they do not remain healthy without vigilance and accountability.

There are many examples of that in history, but here’s a recent favorite.  A 10-year study published in 2023 found an epidemic of U.S. employers recharacterizing normally wage-based positions as low-earning salaried job titles, skirting just above the pay threshold to avoid overtime pay regulations.  This included such dystopian silliness as calling front-desk assistants “Directors of First Impression.” TIME reported on the study here, saying in summary, “Over the 10-year period, researchers found a 485% surge in the use of misleading managerial titles for salaried positions with earnings only slightly above the $455-a-week threshold.”  Yikes!

That example exploits a legal loophole in the traditional 40-hour week, but I bring it up to underscore the broader necessity: be vigilant against abuses of workers’ time relative to their compensation.  A shorter week is new territory, so keep a look out (and a look in, at how scheduling and worker compensation are being handled).

Depending on your company’s structure, your influence as a manager will vary, but this is one of those areas where you can often be a force for good.  Managing in good faith means a lot, and it’s even more important when time is shorter.

Leave room to be awesome,