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I work as a Software Engineer. The team has bi-weekly sprints. For the past 2 months sprint planning has been basically impossible to do. The manager himself doesn't know if we're going to start a project the following week or not.

I wonder if this is a fairly common occurrence in similar settings or is this a sign of bad management? (the company is medium size - about 300 employees)

The manager keeps asking to log our hours... but the engineers don't have much to work on.

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    Ask your manager specifically how you should log your hours – Bwmat Aug 28 '20 at 22:48
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    It is fairly common, but on the other hand, these are uncommon times. – dandavis Aug 29 '20 at 8:37
  • Why are you asking us this, and not your manager? This is not your problem. – Mawg says reinstate Monica Sep 5 '20 at 7:17
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No.

You should be told what to do. Your manager is both asking you to work on something ("please log your hours") but you don't know what he expects you to work on.

Generally, you would always be doing "something" for the company (otherwise, why is it employing you?). There are cases where there's not much to do (e.g. a helpdesk with no calls), in this case it seems that your company is keeping you awaiting a project which is going to be assigned "shortly".

However, the expectation should be clear on what he would like you to do. Some examples include:

  • See if you can help in any way the guys from team B or team C.
  • Watch a conference, read a paper about X
  • Try to learn a new language/technology
  • Do some maintenance on <different project> (e.g. improve the documentation of your previous project, which was not as good as it could have been)
  • Investigate that bug which haunted you on a previous project (like an odd db deadlock) and was worked around badly, since you never figured out why (it may help so that in the future you do not fail for the same trap)
  • Think on a project that could be useful to the company and try developing it (for example, crating a commit hook that checks your internal programming style)

As you see, these are things that would give certain value to the company (playing cards with your colleague would probably not make your company too happy). These would generally be short tasks, which don't take much time (given that you may need to stop it whenever you get a new project assigned). I would recommend you to take advantage of this time to do some self-training, which is usually something for which there's never time.

Of course, once you figure out what to do, you would then log the hours appropriately, either as specific tasks (e.g. learning Rust, browsing stackoverflow) or generic ones (e.g. trainings).

I would recommend you to ask your manager what he expects you to do, and maybe suggest a list of the above possibilities (or make up your mind and actually a specific proposal "since we still don't have a project to do, I thought I could do XYZ which we may find useful later, is it ok?").

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    I agree with all of this, but depending on your experience or role, you're not always going to be told exactly what to work on. Sometimes you're expected to make a sandwich without being told how to spread the mustard. Some uncertainty is normal, but probably not to the level the OP is describing. – mcknz Aug 28 '20 at 23:55
  • Also this does not answer a fundamental part of the question at all: "if this is a fairly common occurrence in similar settings or is this a sign of bad management?" - it may just be the lair of the land. I have seen similar behavior at the end of projects when work is running out but you keep the team together for the possible bugs. 2 sprint - that is a month - is not that bad if the project is long and there is still some work around. And it may be bad management - but not from YOUR manager, with other projects in the pipeline being delayed. – TomTom Sep 1 '20 at 11:24
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Seen it in 4 out of 4 jobs

It could be bad management (not necessarily your manager in particular though) or just an uncertain client or an uncertain future for your organization in general. It could also be a general inability to make decisions in your company, so it takes a ton of time to get something done.

Humans are finicky and a chain of humans is very unstable and unpredictable. There is uncertainty everywhere.

As for the hours, the average office worker workers about 3 hours a day. https://www.inc.com/geoffrey-james/new-research-most-salaried-employees-only-do-about-3-hours-of-real-work-each-day.html

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  • "A chain of humans is very unstable and unpredictable" <- I might steal that, it's a good description :) – bytepusher Sep 5 '20 at 0:39
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I've been in situations like this before, and in various industries. It's a very dangerous place to be in for a worker because you will be judged on what you do with your time. Ensure that what you elect to do with your time is useful to the company (but also make it useful to you in general), and I would run it past your supervisor before embarking on it. As one of the previous posted suggested, there are a number of things you can do.

One of the reasons why project teams have senior employees is that they can spot and raise work that needs to be done, get it in to the work queue, and drive the improvement process. It's team work.

This could be a sign of a lost product vision, disappointing market sentiment analysis, attempts by the people shaping the work to delay decision making, slow approvals process, lack of priority from the powers that be, or just a slow down. It's hard to know without full context and knowing your company.

Don't forget though, no matter what happens, it's always good to be prepared for the worst. Make sure everything you have is up to date (resume, CV, etc) in case the company is in poor shape, or you decided that being in such a situation just isn't for you.

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It might be less typical than having too much to do, but it is not unusual in big organizations. It is a bit like standing in the kitchen, giving tasks to two of your kids but not having a sensible task for the third kid at the moment. Just on a corporate level.

You might notice the many, many requests about the need to refactor software between the never-ending pressure to produce fancy new features. You are lucky: Now is a good time to do just that. You (and your team) can refactor your previous project(s). So when new feature-requests come in you will be ready to implement them faster than ever before.

Your manager might be actually thankful for that suggestion. They can write it down as "necessary maintenance in preparation for further development" and/or cite security aspects of refactoring.

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