Leading a team of engineers requires a combination of technical competence and management skills. Even if a team is fully composed of experts, an engineering project requires effective direction to be successful. The role of the engineering manager can be compared with that of an orchestra director: musicians are experts at playing their instrument of choice, and the director combines their contributions into a concert.
The following are 10 important rules when managing engineers. They can help you achieve project goals, while keeping a productive and pleasant working environment.
1) Be Clear and Concise
Due to their technical background, engineers tend to appreciate brief and clear instructions. You should make sure that all members of the engineering team know exactly what to do, and then remain accessible for clarifications. Senior engineers can direct themselves, but be ready to provide coaching for less experienced team members.
When sending instructions by email, be as concise as possible. For instance, if a project requirement can be described completely in one sentence, do not write a long paragraph. Consider that engineers can easily get a full inbox when there are many ongoing projects, and they will appreciate brevity in email.
2) Avoid Unplanned Meetings as Much as Possible
Meetings should be used to improve productivity, without becoming hurdles for the project. A common but unproductive habit is having “emergency meetings” at the end of the day, when team members may be tired from a full day of work. Also consider that you may disrupt personal plans, and these meetings are often met with a negative attitude.
Even if unplanned meetings are held earlier in the day, they can still be disruptive, especially for tasks that require full concentration from design engineers. If emergency meetings have become frequent, the project probably lacks effective planning.
3) Make Sure Engineers Have All the Tools They Require
Modern engineering is strongly dependent on software, and this applies for tasks like modeling, materials take off and project cost estimation. Software packages are normally tied to licenses, and subject to periodic upgrades. An engineering manager must make sure all engineers in the team have access to licensed and updated software.
An engineering manager must also ensure that all team members have access to the information they need. For example, if project files are stored in a server, permissions must be set up so that all team members have access. If engineers depend on someone else each time they need to retrieve information, the project is slowed down.
4) Listen to Individual Contributions and Make Space for Them
Engineers are solution providers, and an effective manager listens to individual contributions. This brings more solutions to the table, while boosting team motivation. On the other hand, when engineers feel their contributions are not considered, they may stop collaborating with new ideas and limit themselves to assigned tasks.
Effective engineering managers understand that empowerment can lead to improved results. In engineering, having many viable solutions for a single project requirement is common.
5) Do Not Micromanage, Unless It Is Absolutely Necessary
A micromanager monitors and controls work very closely, with excessive attention to minor details. This management style brings negative consequences: the work environment can easily become stressful, the project slows down, and the engineering manager shifts attention away from overall project direction to focus on small details.
Some critical tasks require direct involvement from the engineering manager, and micromanagement is justified in these specific cases. However, an effective manager knows when to delegate and when to get involved closely, instead of trying to control every detail of all project tasks.
6) Delegate Tasks According to Talent
Each member of an engineering team has unique skills and strengths, as well as personal preferences and weaknesses. Some companies place too much emphasis on weaknesses, and this can be frustrating and unproductive.
When delegating responsibilities, an engineering manager should give team members the opportunity to use their strengths. Some managers like to delegate based on weaknesses, believing that team members will improve when challenged, but this approach often backfires.
Assume a team has two engineers with skills in building energy modeling and cost estimation, but one is much better at energy modeling, and the other excels at cost estimation. A smart engineering manager will delegate these tasks based on individual strengths to improve the final result.
7) Provide Ergonomic Desks and Chairs
Since modern engineering depends strongly on software, engineers dedicate a large number of hours to computer work. Engineering managers must make sure everyone has an ergonomic desk and chair, minimizing the risk of repetitive strain injury (RSI).
When ergonomy is disregarded, members of the engineering team may eventually suffer from back pain or other similar issues. This is detrimental for motivation and quality of life, while reducing productivity. Ergonomic desks and chairs create a healthier workplace, reducing sick leave.
8) Emphasize Efficiency Instead of Working Long Hours
Collaborators who leave the office last are not necessarily the ones who accomplish the most work, and a smart engineering manager is aware of this. A good leader motivates the engineering staff to use work hours efficiently, emphasizing that overtime should be an exception and not the norm.
As mentioned above, sitting for long hours in front of the computer is can be detrimental for health. When work hours are used efficiently, a given task can be completed in less time.
9) Become a Good Planner
Engineering managers must be good planners, having a clear notion of the time and effort required for each task, while understanding how different tasks depend on each other. When a project is well planned, managers can assign work effectively.
When a project lacks effective planning, there tends to be an uneven distribution of work and wasted efforts. The project also tends to deviate from the scope, and time-consuming changes become more frequent.
10) Avoid Unnecessary Paperwork and Bureaucracy
Engineering managers should avoid excessive formats and reports in projects. Documentation is a good project management practice, but paperwork must be simple and concise. When engineers spend a large fraction of their time filling forms and writing reports, productivity and motivation may suffer.
Reports should include enough information for management decisions, without reaching an excessive level of detail. Tedious and time-consuming reports are common consequence of the micromanagement style.
Engineering managers must keep the project on track and delegate work effectively, while conserving a productive and motivating work environment. In general, they should focus on creating the right conditions to let engineers work at their best, while removing hurdles.
An effective engineering manager is also aware of detrimental practices and avoids them. Frequent emergency meetings, constant micromanagement and excessive paperwork are some examples.
Michael Tobias PE is a visionary in the construction industry. His passion resonates as the
Founding Principal of New York Engineers, an Inc 5000 fastest growing company. New York
Engineers is the most innovative construction engineering firm focusing on Mechanical,
Electrical and Plumbing (MEP) engineering designs in Chicago and New York. Michael has overseen the design of over 1000 construction projects in all market sectors, including LEED certified and Passive House certified projects. He leads a global team of 50 top performers.