Unconventional Ideas

By Bob Violino  |  Posted 04-13-2009

Finding Your Happy IT (Work)Place

Retaining top it talent has always been a high priority for cios, and in this tough economy, the issue takes even greater precedence. Skilled IT workers remain in high demand, and technology executives need to find creative ways to hold onto their best people.

While paying staffers competitive salaries and offering other financial incentives such as bonuses are effective ways to retain people, that's not easy to do when budgets are tight. As a result, CIOs have to think beyond dollars--provided they're already paying staffers a fair market wage.

One of the most important things IT executives can do, experts say, is establish and promote a healthy, productive work environment. If a company or IT department is perceived as a dreadful place to work, keeping top IT talent on board will become an uphill battle.

Staffers need to feel that they're valuable members of a team and that they're encouraged to collaborate with peers and business users. "Company culture and manager-employee relationships matter just as much to employees as competitive compensation and a comprehensive benefits package, but they're not always as obvious to CIOs," says Dave Willmer, executive director of IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology. "If employees don't look forward to coming to work each day, they're apt to leave sooner or later, even if they're well-paid."

When technology workers are asked what they like about where they work, they generally don't just talk about pay, says David Foote, CEO of Foote Partners, a management consultancy and research company that provides advice about managing technology and the IT work force. "They talk about the people they work with, the quality of management and how they're treated," he says.

Foote concedes that creating a place where people like to work isn't always easy--especially in an economic environment where the pressure to perform is continually on the rise. But he's been querying IT professionals for more than 20 years, and he's found that they typically have a short list of desires. "They like to have fun on the job. They like to work incredibly hard and be recognized for what they're doing," Foote says. "They like to work where there are not a lot of clashing egos. And they like to know their work is important."

As part of building a positive culture, Foote says, IT and business executives should avoid punishing staffers when things go wrong with projects. Instead, they should use positive reinforcement. "Companies do have a way of abusing people on a regular basis when things don't go well," he says. The result: a sense of fear and less willingness to take risks that might help the organization in the long run.

For example, when doing post-mortem project analyses, managers shouldn't place blame on employees for any failures or vow not to use them on similar projects. Instead, Foote says, they should acknowledge their mistakes for not providing workers with the tools and conditions necessary to do the job better, provide a way to fix the problem and move on.

Increased Responsibilities

Increased Responsibilities

Giving IT staffers more responsibility and varied tasks is another winning tactic. Experts say tech professionals want to feel responsible for helping their organization succeed. On top of that, they want to be challenged.

Robert Half's Willmer urges CIOs to put employees in charge of some tasks because employees who feel trusted are more likely to stay at a company. "Trust your staff," he says. "Make sure your employees are empowered to generate ideas and run with them."

Even though things don't always go well with technology initiatives, many IT professionals want to take the responsibility of running a project. Foote says that tactic creates an opening: If you can't pay them as much as they'd like, giving them more ownership of a project or initiative may help keep them on board.

Varying their tasks is also important. "They can't be bored; that's the kiss of death in IT," Foote says. He recommends that managers emphasize the roles IT professionals play and the skills they have--not job titles, organization charts and traditional career paths. Then they should look across the organization and develop opportunities for IT pros to move between roles, giving them the chance to capitalize on their skills.

Foote cites a company that was successful with a program it created in which it evaluated talent and tracked people as they moved among a variety of roles and developed metrics to gauge their performance over a period of time. "Give people different kinds of projects to work on," he says. "They can jump between finance, accounting, sales, across different functional experiences and work on a variety of solutions."

Achievo, a global IT services provider based in San Ramon, Calif., tries to provide a variety of career opportunities and help its IT employees expand their skills, says CIO Bernard Mathaisel.

The company helps employees expand their cultural experiences by giving them the opportunity to work at sites abroad. Achievo also lets IT staffers work at customer locations to better understand their operations. "If an employee has the skill set, we can frequently move them at their request," Mathaisel says.

In addition, Achievo provides ongoing training opportunities for IT workers through programs in specific technologies, process management, project management, transcultural communication, customer relations and various business topics.

Yet another sensible idea to boost retention is to develop a mentoring program. IT people can benefit from having mentors, as well as being mentors. "Show top employees you value them by pairing them with newer staff members as a mentor--an employee who typically has several years of experience and is always available to answer questions or serve as a sounding board for ideas or to offer advice," Robert Half's Willmer says.

More tenured employees benefit from such a program because they impart knowledge to entry-level employees, enhance their communication and training skills, and help build talent within the organization, Willmer says. And those receiving mentoring benefit from learning from the experiences of their colleagues.

Achievo encourages senior employees to act as peer trainers and to participate in lectures and seminars. That provides opportunities, Mathaisel says, "for all Achievo employees to exchange knowledge and enhance communication, and also [offers] a platform for the newly accomplished to showcase their expertise."

Unconventional Ideas

Unconventional Ideas

Another way to retain workers is to continually offer new incentives and perks, and find interesting ways to encourage innovative thinking.

Here's one idea from Robert Half's Willmer: Hold a contest for the best idea to boost efficiency in a particular process, save money for the company or generate new business. "Develop a fun theme to carry through the challenge and promote weekly progress," he advises.

Tactics like this can help achieve a sense of camaraderie and a feeling that everyone is helping the company to weather the challenging economy, Willmer says. Organizations can also offer low-cost incentives, such as movie tickets, for employees who offer the most innovative ideas.

Companies can also encourage IT professionals to think about others. In a time when IT organizations are doing more with less, employees need some alternative outlets.

"Invite your employees to participate in charitable activities of their choice and offer them the opportunity to leave work early one day to participate," Willmer suggests. "Your employees will have an opportunity to bond outside of the office while they contribute to their local communities."

That type of bonding matters to Achievo. To foster a greater sense of teamwork, Mathaisel says, Achievo sponsors numerous clubs for staffers interested in different sports, games, hiking and other activities.

Mid-America Overseas, a transportation and logistics provider in Chicago, has added amenities to help employees take their mind off work, including a variety of exercise equipment located in an old server room. The company hosts regular events such as an Oktoberfest party, a Chinese New Year celebration and a New Year's breakfast.

"I have always found that it's not the large game rooms with pool tables, arcades, Xboxes and other items that make the difference," says CIO Mike Mierwinski. "It's often the smaller things--and definitely food--that bring people together."

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