Hollywood’s version of the “IT guy” often depicts oddballs in a back room – loners whose associations are in online chat rooms, poker and dating sites. Their relationships end at the monitor as they hide behind emoticons and acronyms. And Hollywood’s vision may be contributing to the decline in IT support resources and – even more frightening – the decline in university and college enrolment in IT programs.
As the talent pool dries up and competition for IT staff becomes more fierce in both the public and private sectors, what can an organization do to attract and retain key IT staff?
Across the country, there’s been a trend to increase base pay, with even higher bonuses doled out without any real explanation. But increasing compensation is not a retention strategy – it’s a desperation tactic. And it demonstrates the organization’s unwillingness to actually understand IT professionals and what motivates them.
Despite the hefty increases, organizations still see turnovers of six to 12 months, which means excessive costs of re-hiring and re-training. This route may be the easiest – but the patch eventually falls off and organizations are in the same boat they were in only months before.
So if it’s not money, what will help retain IT professionals? With a little bit of insight and thought, there are several ways – without locking them in a back room with all the equipment one could ask for. At issue are:
Despite bluster from the arts community that insists it has a lock on creative output, technology professionals are highly artistic people. IT professionals want the opportunity to deeply engage in their work and make real progress. It’s critical for managers to match people to projects not only on the basis of their experience, but also in terms of where their interests lie. With the latest and greatest technology changing on an almost daily basis, half the reason IT professionals go into IT is to be part of the daily evolution.
An organization that fosters creativity and supports new ideas, no matter how “off the cuff” they may seem initially, broadens horizons for the IT group. IT professionals enjoy breaking the norm and coming up with something that’s never been done before. They thrive in an environment where they work with like-minded people and build off each other’s talent. When people are doing what they love and are allowed to genuinely engage, creativity flourishes; so does their overall enjoyment in the workplace.
The IT profession is one of the most thankless there is. It’s not like social work, nursing or teaching, where there is at least understanding for the type of position an individual has decided to pursue. In fact, the daily recognition an IT professional receives is usually negative. When a computer or a program doesn’t work, it’s never the user’s fault – that burden falls on the poor shoulders of the IT department.
Organizations can literally lose thousands to millions of dollars a day if their IT investment isn’t doing what they need it to do, and everyone needs someone to blame. Think what would happen to a retail organization if the checkout system went down. And what would happen to a tax agency if it was hacked and citizens’ personal data was compromised? Or a call centre whose database of numbers simply disappeared one day? In many disciplines results above 90 percent are exceptional, but in the IT world nothing short of 100 percent is the expected – and then it’s rarely recognized. It’s no wonder the IT professional craves recognition.
Recognition doesn’t have to be expensive. Common complaints during interviews indicate that part of the reason IT professionals leave is that senior managers rarely seem to notice that they even exist. Taking the time to acknowledge their talents, abilities and skills, and perhaps even trying to engage in a lay person’s conversation about technology they’ve come across, will send a message of recognition and respect – and an organization can have employee happiness for free.
Other possibilities for recognition include periodic emails to the entire staff about the individual, providing time off outside scheduled vacations, or paying for dinner out for the family (including paying for the babysitter) after completion of a large project. All are inexpensive ways to recognize the IT professional. But don’t forget how far a pat on the back or a simple thank-you goes.
3. Work/Life Balance
The IT world is not a 9-to-5 job. And for most IT professionals, this is understood. From help desk to programming to network architecture to project management, extra hours are simply part of the job description. During the recent two-week “daylight saving time crisis,” average workdays could run 13 to 15 hours. And while many IT professionals just shrugged it off, suggesting that it went with the territory, most were hoping for some compensating time off.
Those organizations that understand the basic courtesies of comp time off in such circumstances will greatly increase their chances of retention – and those that don’t can expect some resignation letters in the near future. Google has been ranked as one of the best employers. Google has made the office so good – a dry cleaning service, chef’s preparing lavish meals, nap rooms – that employees don’t want to leave.
And yet that’s not really work/life balance. Work/life balance includes providing opportunities to spend time outside of work. How good an office is inside doesn’t really make up for work/life balance (once again, the cheque book can stay closed). Providing opportunities to spend time with family or pursuing outside interests in the community, or supporting healthy lifestyles, is the way to make a work/life balance program work. One other key ingredient to a proper work/life balance program is to ensure you have enough staff to perform the job.
While occasional overtime is expected, it shouldn’t be the norm. Constant pressure to compensate for understaffing is demotivating. An individual can’t take the time off if there is not someone there to cover; and there is often a fear that they will become even further behind if they do, so they refuse to take time that’s needed. Burnout increases and so does the search for new employment.
4. Training and Development
IT professionals seek frequent opportunities to learn and grow in their careers, their knowledge and their skill. They seek the chance to try new opportunities, sit on challenging committees, attend seminars and read about and discuss new technologies. Without this, they start to feel they are stagnating – and with stagnation comes the reality of “time to look for a new job.”
Organizations most often turn down requests for training for two reasons: budgetary constraints and fear. Budgetary constraints may be a challenge but it is important to be creative with training opportunities and costs – often you can partner with vendors, support online/book over classroom training, or develop in-house courses to support your IT professional through your HR department. Fear, on the other hand, flows from the notion that an upgraded employee will become more marketable and thus leave.