Pandemic programming: International study reveals impacts of COVID‑19 on software professionals

- May 7, 2020

Computer Science researcher Paul Ralph. (Provided photo)
Computer Science researcher Paul Ralph. (Provided photo)

An international study led by a Dalhousie Computer Science researcher has revealed the impacts of COVID-19 on those working in software professional roles.

Launched in 12 languages and completed by more than 2,000 individuals in 53 countries, the online study identified how current work environments and situations are affecting software professionals across industries.

Unprecedented remote working

As the pandemic rapidly forced employees across the globe into unplanned remote work, Paul Ralph looked to his research area of software development to find a way to help both employees and organizations in the community.

Using scales developed by the World Health Organization, the survey explored the barriers to productivity and emotional well-being for software professionals and how companies can help their employees right now, in an unprecedented work situation.

“Companies are willing to help; they want their employees to be healthy and productive, but they don’t know what to do because this situation is unprecedented,” says Dr. Ralph.

“People have been remote working for years and there are decades of research on remote work and what makes it beneficial, but this isn’t normal remote work. People are working in impromptu home offices during an unprecedented global disaster. If it turns out people are less productive that doesn’t mean remote work doesn’t work. I realized we needed to bring in concepts from disaster management, emergency planning and response to pandemics etc. and incorporate that into our research.”

Unique situations

The study has been submitted to Empirical Software Engineering and airXiv. Findings indicate that software professionals’ emotional well-being and productivity are suffering and women, parents and people with disabilities may be disproportionately affected.

“It seems pretty clear that having small children at home is making a big difference,” explains Dr. Ralph. “Developers also place value on employers letting them take equipment home from the office or paying for the things they need, along with offering reassurance that a decrease in productivity is ok.”

Other noteworthy results reveal that poor disaster preparedness, fear related to the pandemic and poor home office ergonomics are exacerbating professionals' reduction in well-being or productivity. Beyond that, different people need different kinds of support.

Recognizing the unique situations faced by employees and organizations in different countries, Dr. Ralph called on academic colleagues from across the globe to support with translation and distribution of the survey.

Response rates and feedback differ by language and country with notable uptake in Germany, Russia, Brazil and the USA.

“Results vary by country,” says Dr. Ralph. “So, in countries such as the United States people are a lot more worried about losing their job and not being able to buy groceries. But in countries like Germany, people are not so afraid, they aren’t afraid of being laid off and, if they are, there is a robust social safety net.”

Practical recommendations

Now that results of the study have been published, Dr. Ralph and his international team aim to use their findings to make practical recommendations to the software industry when managing remote work during social isolation now, and in the future, to improve employee’s productivity and well-being.  

“Our main recommendations are around companies being proactive in supporting employees’ emotional well-being; if they look after that then productivity improvements will follow,” argues Dr. Ralph. “Employers also need to accept that 100 per cent productivity is not going to happen, and pressuring employees isn’t going to help, so decisions such as layoffs, promotions or bonuses shouldn’t be made based on productivity during this time.

“The other things we focus on are talking to employees about the ergonomics of their home workspaces and how this can be improved.”

Dr. Ralph argues this is important not just within the situation of the current pandemic but for planning for potential future scenarios.

“We might be stuck in cycles of lock down and normal life for some time and so we need to understand this. There is also no guarantee that the next pandemic is 100 years away, these things are orthogonal events so just because a big pandemic hasn’t happened since the 1960s doesn’t mean we won’t get another one in two years.”


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