The Post-COVID Work World Will Look Very Different For Developers with Kids

Nevo Alva

The work habits of software engineers – especially those with kids – may never return to a pre-pandemic “normal.”

That’s the conclusion of a new analysis of the software engineering data from Acumen. Specifically, the data suggest that:

  • Developers with kids have faced a disproportionate share of COVID-related work/life disruption
  • Devs with kids have progressively evolved strategies throughout the pandemic to minimize disruption and stabilize around a “new normal”
  • These patterns involve shifting the workday to accommodate new childcare realities – and there’s evidence that these new patterns will stick around even in a post-COVID world

Data and background

Acumen’s platform unifies and analyzes data from various engineering systems (e.g., source control, project management). The data in this analysis come specifically from software developers based in Israel, where the three near-complete national lockdowns since the outbreak of COVID-19 (first: April/May, second: September/October, third: January/February) provide a sort of “natural experiment” to track the evolution of developer work patterns and behavior.

Devs are adaptive creatures

In a previous post, we highlighted the disproportionate impact of the COVID lockdowns in Israel on developers with kids. While childless devs generally saw a surge in productivity during the first two lockdowns (no more evenings out at the bar, perhaps?), devs with kids tended to see a steep and marked productivity decline.

The third lockdown, from late December to early February, sheds new light on this trend: the negative productivity impact of lockdowns has declined significantly over time. The impact of the second lockdown was much less pronounced than the first. And for many devs with kids, the third lockdown barely registers in terms of a productivity change.  

Consider, for example, the following senior software developer with two young children: 

Productivity – measured both in throughput and imputed work hours – takes a nosedive during the first lockdown, dips meaningfully but to a lesser extent during the second lockdown (note that July and August, when kids are out of school, basically constitute an extended “pre-lockdown”), and barely inches downward during the most recent lockdown.

(For a point of contrast, consider the following chart of a dev without children – output tends to increase during every lockdown episode.)

What might explain the progressive “stabilization” of productivity from one lockdown to the next? Anecdotally, software developers with kids report evolving strategies and practices to minimize the disruption of lockdowns since the start of the pandemic. These include enlisting additional childcare support (both professional or through extended family) and redefining the division of responsibilities with a spouse or partner.

Perhaps most importantly, it involves shifting working hours to accommodate childcare needs. 

The workday looks different now...and it’s not going back

To the extent that software developers with children have been able to find a new equilibrium and restore productivity to pre-COVID levels, it’s been almost entirely because of a massive shift in how they work. The following chart shows the average change in pre-COVID vs. mid-lockdown working hours for devs with kids.

Activity drops off precipitously during childrens’ waking hours, particularly school hours. In contrast, compared with pre-COVID days devs with kids tend to work quite a bit more during times when the kids are asleep – especially late night and early morning.

Here’s the thing: while this shift is most pronounced during periods of actual lockdown, it tends to persist even once the lockdown ends. Here’s how the work patterns of devs with kids during non-lockdown periods compares to before the start of the pandemic. 

Devs with kids report a variety of reasons for the persistence of lockdown work patterns even during periods of relative normalcy:

  • “Still being in WFH mode” – family and childcare commitments that can’t be immediately discharged even once lockdown restrictions are lifted 
  • Permanent realignment of partner responsibilities – e.g., one partner needing to dedicate more time to childcare because of a change in the others’ employment status or schedule
  • Preference – conscious restructuring of the workday in order to spend more time with family  

Whatever the reason, the data is a canary in the coal mine for engineering leaders, suggesting that the work patterns of developers with children won’t immediately bounce back to their pre-COVID norms.  

What this means for engineering organizations

With its highly publicized declaration that the “9-5 workday is dead,” Salesforce became the latest in a string of global technology giants to recognize that employee work patterns and expectations have shifted irreversibly. These companies, which include Microsoft and Facebook, have proactively instituted permanent work-from-home or flex work policies. 

The data from the Acumen analysis strongly supports the wisdom of these types of policies. It’s clear that flexibility around working hours (along with new technology and practices to align remote dev temas) has been a core part of the toolkit enabling devs with kids to participate fully and productively in their engineering organizations. 

Engineering leaders would do well to recognize that the new normal looks very different for devs with kids – and to plan accordingly.

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