June 16, 2024

Celebrating Glue Work on your team

Jess Cooper

Jess Cooper

It’s time for Glue Work to get the attention it deserves

Celebrating Glue Work on your team

There’s a lot of non-technical work that goes into eng teams delivering projects successfully. This work is called Glue Work and your team can’t function without it. Like the name suggests, Glue Work is the ‘glue’ that holds the team together and bridges the gap between technical tasks.

In her ‘Being Glue’ talk, Tanya Reilly provides some examples of Glue Work on dev teams, “Like noticing when other people in the team are blocked and helping them out. Or reviewing design documents and noticing what's being handwaved or what's inconsistent. Or onboarding the new people and making them productive faster. Or improving processes to make customers happy.”

Tanya also points out that Glue Work is similar to technical leadership, but often leaders aren’t the only ones performing these tasks. It’s common for the majority of Glue Work to settle on a technical team member who is naturally proactive with organization or operations tasks, recognizes gaps and is comfortable stepping up to fill them.

When Glue Work is visible and shared equally across your team, it can help with reducing information silos, mitigating risk, improving gender equality, and enhancing your team’s overall productivity. In this article, we’ll share tactics for how to harness the power of Glue Work on your team and use it for good.

Glue Work is necessary

While it might not always be glamorous, there’s no way around Glue Work being done on your team. Most eng teams’ productivity is measured with metrics like lines of code shipped or story points completed. But shipping code isn’t the only way to contribute to moving these metrics in a positive direction. Glue Work makes the entire operation run smoothly. Without it getting done, it’s going to feel difficult to make progress.

Reward Glue Work or it won’t be done (fairly)

As we mentioned previously, Glue Work can tend to fall on one person. It happens sneakily over time. A new person (likely a woman, but we’ll talk more about that later) joins a team.

They are a natural communicator and organizer. They’re likely junior, but have senior-level people and management skills.

They see an opportunity for process improvements, so they jump in and suggest changes to demonstrate their value. It makes the team better.

They receive good feedback, so they chime in on more ways to help the team run better.

Before you know it, people have caught on that they’re good at this Glue Work stuff…

And now their manager and peers are asking for help. Eventually, they’re doing the bulk of the Glue Work.

There are two main reasons why Glue Work being done by a single individual is not a good idea.

When not shared, Glue Work can steal too much focus

Glue Work is like an iceberg. On the surface, it might not look like there’s much that needs to be done. But when you look underneath, there’s more behind-the-scenes work than you think.

When a technical person ends up with the sole responsibility of Glue Work, it can slow their career progression. Glue Work could end up eating away at their time, making it harder for them to efficiently complete major projects that are required for promotion. This isn’t fair.

Siloed Glue Work puts teams at risk

It’s never a good idea to have one person on your team be the only one who knows how to do something. If that person gets sick or gets busy, someone needs to have adequate knowledge to fill in.

For example, Glue Work skills like reviewing and providing feedback are important. If only one person is doing this, feedback will become unilateral. The entire team should take turns providing feedback and direction. To practice this skill, but to also bring new perspectives to the team.

An important note on Glue Work and gender inequality in the workplace

Women tend to take on (or are given) more invisible work. Both at home and in the workplace. If Glue Work isn’t celebrated or mandated in a team, people will have to volunteer to do it. But “volunteering” doesn’t always mean an eager hand raise. Sometimes it’s observing that an important task isn’t getting done, and no one else is stepping up to do it. Is that fair?

There’s an interesting phenomenon with volunteering in the workplace. In the HBR article, Why Women Volunteer for Tasks That Don’t Lead to Promotions, it’s stated that:

  • If there’s work that doesn’t count towards a promotion to be done, women volunteer to do it 48% more often than men.
  • Men tend to wait to volunteer, because they know a woman will volunteer instead.
  • When no women are present, men will volunteer.
  • Managers ask their female employees to help with non-promotable work 44% more than men.

Those aren’t easy facts to read, but we need to be honest with ourselves about these patterns in the workplace. It’s likely you’ve experienced this, but you may not have noticed. It’s probably fair to assume that female software engineers are taking on an outsized responsibility of Glue Work.

Leadership challenge: Think about the people on your team who volunteer for Glue Work the most often. Who are they? How can you make it more fair?

Rewarding Glue Work to create change

To ensure fairness and equity for all in the workplace and that Glue Work is shared across team members, it needs to be encouraged and rewarded at all levels. This will require both a cultural and operational shift by the leaders in your organization. Let’s discuss tactics for helping create change in your organization.

Publicly call out excellent Glue Work

Glue Work can often be invisible–even if it’s taken hours of someone’s week. A cultural shift towards putting importance on Glue Work is making sure it’s both visible and celebrated. When summarizing wins of a project, it’s important to include Glue Work. It’s not an afterthought. It’s the glue, after all.

This could include call outs in Slack, sprint reviews, retros, etc.

Make it clear Glue Work is a shared responsibility and no one is above it

Glue Work shouldn’t be assigned on a ‘volunteer’ basis. Because Glue Work is core to an engineering team’s ability to thrive, it should be considered up front.

When planning a sprint or a project, make sure to discuss Glue Work, what type of tasks need to be completed and approximately how much effort they will take. Giving Glue Work facetime during meetings will help communicate it’s a core responsibility.

Then, assign the Glue Work tasks evenly across the team. If someone says they are too busy for Glue Work, that’s a sign that they’re too busy in general and priorities need to be reevaluated. 

Clearly communicate to the team that they will be held accountable for Glue Work in the same way they would be for code contributions. Make sure to follow through. Glue Work should not be passed off to someone else–intentionally or unintentionally–without a larger discussion about priorities.

It’s helpful to switch up who takes on what Glue Work tasks each sprint/project for knowledge sharing. This way, the entire team gets practice working on skills like developing standards and documentation, providing review, training new employees, etc.

Include Glue Work when evaluating performance

Glue Work can be hard to quantify, which makes it more challenging during evaluations/reviews. A good way to approach quantifying Glue Work is to consider the business impact. If someone on your team helped support a project with Glue Work, what was the impact of that? That’s how you quantify it.

Here’s an example. A new customer is onboarding and needs a complicated integration that’s not working correctly. Normally it would be handled through Customer Success, but in this case, an engineer needs to be on the call to understand what’s happening. One of your engineers steps up and works with the customer directly. They provide them status updates, follow up by email, and eventually resolve the issue. The customer is happy and was impressed by the team’s dedication to helping them. As a result, this reduced the potential for churn and helped the company hit its MRR goals. That’s how you quantify the impact of Glue Work.

To keep track of this, it’s always a good idea to encourage your team to keep brag sheets. Brag sheets are a great way to bring light to invisible work. Asking your team to keep track of their key achievements (not just code!) throughout the quarter will help you evaluate their contribution to Glue Work.

For each achievement, think about the impact:

  • Did your contribution help retain customers or expand accounts?
  • Did it reduce the time it takes to resolve a customer bug ticket?
  • Did it make it easier for our team to meet its goals? How?
  • Did it help move the needle on key company OKRs?

In short, Glue Work is necessary and often undervalued. Intentionally celebrating and distributing Glue Work on your team can help with reducing information silos, mitigating risk, improving gender equality, and improving your team’s overall productivity.

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