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The Big Retention Myth Tripping Up Engineering Teams

Ashley Swanson

Improving retention of your engineering team can be complex, due to the overlapping interactions between market factors, company systems, and individuals’ needs. What’s worse is that there are common myths about retention that can mask the reality of your workplace. 

The most common engineering retention myth that trips up tech companies?

Myth: Engineers Are Always Willing To Leave Companies For Better Pay

As more data comes out about the Great Resignation, we’ve learned that quitting and hiring trends are very different between industries. The main drivers of resignations have more to do with a surge of retiring seniors quitting the workforce earlier than planned, and service industry workers switching jobs for better pay and higher expectations.

For those quitting jobs in the knowledge industry–like software engineers, product developers and designers–their reasons focus less on salary and more on burnout, boredom, and stagnation as reasons to leave their job. There’s been a growing burnout crisis in the tech industry that’s sapping productivity, magnified by the extra stressors of trying to work in a global pandemic.

Which means engineers are not quitting for better pay, but better health, culture, and well-being in their workplace.

Corporate pay strategies should be designed to incentivize behaviors, outcomes, and preferred perceptions. If you are trying to outplay other organizations for talent with big signing bonuses or drastic salary increases, it can cause a rise of “dysfunctional retention” and a lack of long-term engagement. Employees who would leave instead end up staying for the money, but their productivity tanks and their discontent rises.

Gallup found that companies trying to poach talent need more than a 20 percent pay raise to lure engaged employees away from a manager that empowers their teams. But for disengaged employees? The pay wasn’t a factor, with companies offering next to nothing to scoop up struggling employees.

A higher pay doesn’t buy loyalty. Offering better opportunities, benefits, management, work environment, flexibility and job fit are what software developers actually want to see.

Retention strategies need to evolve past pay

Many retention strategies aren’t based on data, but are emotional decisions by senior leadership. Worse, the strategies can be heavy on the platitudes and little on results for employees. Almost nothing in corporate retention strategies are data-driven.

One of the most common strategies is the use of retention bonuses. Retention bonuses have three major flaws: paying for superficial loyalty, negative unintentional consequences that damage company image, and there is no evidence that retention bonuses actually changes retention rates.

The pandemic has fundamentally shifted workers’ perspectives on the office, their bosses, and their workplace. For many the pandemic has clarified the good, bad, and ugly of how they spend their time. Are they being pushed for more and more hours of work, instead of efficiency, productivity and results? 

The growing research on companies embracing four day workweeks shows how a more adaptive approach helps employees more than pay, by easing burnout, offsetting attrition, and increasing overall productivity. Companies that offer hybrid and remote-first offices are showing that they care about empowering developers to choose the workplace style they thrive in. 

What engineers actually want

There are thousands of threads on Reddit, Quora, and other forums by bored developers, sysadmins, and software engineers. Common comments include dull work assigned without input, with little room for autonomy or creatively from the engineer. Engineers' confidence in their companies are eroding, with many just sticking around for pay. 

Fundamentally, engineers want to be in a good environment to solve hard problems, continuously learn new things, and make meaningful contributions to larger missions. 

Instead of only thinking about pay, the retention strategy for engineering teams needs to be multifaceted. Engineering organizations should focus on tearing down roadblocks and building support structures, to create that environment developers are eager to join and feel like it's a place they belong. 

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