Beyond the Glamour: The Importance of Glue Work in Team Success

Glue work helps fulfill the primary human drive to bond, which significantly impacts employee commitment. Commitment captures the extent to which employees engage in corporate citizenship. However, it can be seen as less glamorous and not promotable, hurting careers. Managers need to be intentional about the amount of glue work, using glue work to develop technical leadership in engineers, and recognizing and rewarding engineers who do it well.

In this article, we will cover:

  • What is glue work?
  • Examples of glue work
  • Glue work in individualistic cultures
  • Too much glue work
  • Promoting glue work

What is glue work?

Glue work refers to tasks or activities that connect different parts of a project or team. Glue work is required for a project to be successful because it helps ensure that all the individual pieces of the project work together seamlessly and efficiently. Projects are often complex, with multiple moving parts, different teams or stakeholders involved, and various systems or technologies that must be integrated.

Beyond a particular project, glue work helps, well, “gluing” different teams together. At work, the drive to bond accounts for the enormous boost in motivation when employees feel proud of belonging to the organization and for their loss of morale when the institution betrays them. It also explains why employees find it hard to break out of divisional or functional silos: People become attached to their closest cohorts. The most effective way to fulfill the drive to bond—to engender a strong camaraderie—is to create a culture that promotes teamwork, collaboration, openness, and friendship. Source

Examples of glue work

Here are examples of glue work that apply to software engineers:

  • Taking on the role of a technical lead or a feature lead. Such a role has leadership, project management, and collaboration aspects.
  • Reviewing technical design documents and providing meaningful feedback commentary pointing out gaps, suggesting alternative solutions
  • Recognizing people both in private and public forums
  • Promoting pair programming and mob programming within teams
  • Helping other engineers when they are stuck
  • Mentoring other engineers
  • Onboarding and accelerating productivity for new team members
  • Improving team processes or processes that make customers happy
  • Answering questions from business or operations teams
  • Participating in company or department “Lunch & Learn” events
  • Participating in or leading different committees and communities within the company, technical or otherwise
  • Participating in interviewing loops and recognizing areas of improvement
  • Playing an active role in paying technical debt, improving observability, and documentation, etc
  • Organizing team get-togethers, game nights, focus weeks, launch celebrations, etc

Note: Some of these may already be in your job descriptions/leveling guides and expected in your role as an engineer.

Glue work in individualistic cultures

While individualistic cultures tend to place more emphasis on personal achievement and individual success, successful projects and organizations still rely on effective teamwork and collaboration. Glue work can be even more important in individualistic cultures, where there may be a greater emphasis on individual autonomy and less on collective responsibility. In these cultures, creating a sense of shared purpose or community may be more difficult, making glue work even more crucial for ensuring that everyone is aligned on project goals and that communication channels are open and effective.

Too much glue work

Like all things, it is about balance. While glue work is essential for the smooth functioning of a team or project, it should not be encouraged by a manager as a primary focus for team members for several reasons:

  • Limited growth and development: Being seen as “less technical”: Tanya Reilly writes about issues engineers could face for Being Glue. I strongly recommend this article to engineers, particularly senior engineers or engineers who want to become more senior.
  • Time and resource wastage: Spending too much time on glue work can distract team members from the project’s primary goals and take up valuable time and resources.
  • Low job satisfaction: Team members constantly bogged down with glue work may feel that their skills are not fully utilized, leading to low job satisfaction and disengagement.

Therefore, while glue work is necessary, a manager should ensure that team members can handle it and that it is balanced with technical work that contributes directly to the success of the project as well as the career growth of the individual.

How can managers promote glue work?

  • Set expectations: Managers can set clear expectations for glue work and make it part of team members’ job descriptions and performance evaluations. This can help ensure that team members understand the importance of glue work and are held accountable for their contributions.
  • Recognize and reward glue work: Managers can acknowledge and appreciate the glue work that team members do by highlighting it in team meetings, offering public praise or recognition, or even rewarding team members for their contributions.
  • Create opportunities for collaboration: Managers can promote glue work by creating opportunities for team members to collaborate and work together on projects. This can help build stronger relationships and improve communication and teamwork.