100 best IT workplaces in the U.S.

Get ready to drool. If you worked at General Mills Inc. in Minneapolis, right now you’d be enjoying the many amenities of the company’s newly built three-story employee services building, dubbed the Champions Center.

The 138,000-square-foot building houses a hair salon, fitness centre, credit union, medical and travel services and company store. Employees can take advantage of the concierge service, retail specialty shops, and a cafeteria and deli that offer take-home meals. By 2005, the campus will also include two more lactation rooms, bringing the total number to seven, and the on-site infant care centre will double in size.

But is that what Phil Semmer, CIO at the US$11.5 billion food giant, talks about when discussing what makes his company No. 19 in this year’s Best Places to Work in IT rankings? No, he would prefer to discuss its job-rotation strategy, in which new IT employees are cycled through three different job functions within their first five years at General Mills. Semmer is also proud of the company’s standardization on a handful of vendors to simplify IT and minimize costs, its limited use of IT contractors and its per-capita training budget.

“Our focus is on end results rather than process, and on developing talented staff,” Semmer says. “Because they work in an organization that is consistent yet innovative, IS employees are able to be more successful.”

The fact is, having a mall on campus — while nice — won’t retain unhappy workers if the current economic climate leads to opportunities elsewhere. Once job growth returns, career options like those offered at General Mills will distinguish the companies that serve as refuges in a down economy from those that are great places to work.

The working conditions that IT employees desire haven’t really changed much over time. This year’s Best Places to Work in IT program — which included a survey of nearly 17,000 IT employees at the top 100 companies — found that the top desired benefits after basics like paid vacation and health care coverage focus on the classic three: technology, training and flexible schedules.

What has changed in the past couple of years, with the still-uncertain economy, is companies’ ability to offer these benefits. Layoffs among the Best Places are up: Forty-six per cent of companies on the 2004 list let workers go last year, compared with 28 per cent of companies on the 2003 list. Offshore outsourcing stayed steady, with an average of 33 contractors employed at companies on the 2003 and 2004 Best Places lists.

Conditions do look more favorable in the year ahead — 100 per cent of companies on this year’s list have budgeted for salary increases for IT employees in 2004, and 49 per cent say training budgets will go up. Still, it’s no wonder that 37 per cent of employees say their workplace is “very stressful” or “stressful.”

“The gym, the free food — nobody cares about that,” says Paul Glen, author of Leading Geeks (Jossey-Bass, 2002), a principal at C2 Consulting in Los Angeles and a Computerworld U.S. columnist. “When you’re dealing with a down economy, you have to focus on the basics — cool work, great relationships, fair pay and a reasonable belief that the future holds more of the same.”

The trouble in the past year, points out Tom DeMarco, a fellow of Cutter Consortium in Arlington, Mass., is that some companies sought greater efficiencies by heaping more work on the remaining employees. In the worst cases, this led to a demoralizing feeling of being used — and too burdened to be innovative.

“The opposite of being used is being invested in,” DeMarco says. And he’s not just talking about extra training courses. “The most important investment is giving employees headroom — degrees of freedom, leeway, the ability to make significant choices,” he says. “All these things contribute to personal growth.” In short, DeMarco says, a Best Place to Work gives employees the privilege to do great work.

It’s all about the work

So how have the companies on the Best Places to Work list fostered that type of environment? At Principal Financial Group Inc., a US$9.5 billion financial services organization in Des Moines (No. 33), the answer is threefold: Keep workloads reasonable, encourage personal and professional development even during tough economic times and foster an environment where employees challenge one another to think creatively.

It all starts at the top, where business leaders place high importance on keeping the workweek to 40 hours, says Matt Frantzen, assistant director of IT architecture. When employees need to be on call, Frantzen says, they get on-call pay.

This general philosophy is bolstered by strong IT governance that distinguishes high- from low-priority work. “Before, we had a lot of disparate efforts with little regard for the overall enterprise strategy,” Frantzen says.

But when IT governance is combined with a core data strategy that supports well-defined business plans, “IT employees don’t feel overwhelmed,” he says. “If the work is never-ending, you never have the sense of accomplishment of a job well done.”

Many companies on the Best Places list offer a similar atmosphere. In the employee portion of this year’s survey, 65 per cent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that their workload was reasonable, while 72 per cent said their companies have a clearly defined mission.

And it may sound like a small thing, but the recently instituted policy of “No Meeting Fridays” at Principal also helps keep workloads in check. Ironically, sometimes creating a Best Place means taking things away rather than supplying them, Glen points out. “It’s clearing the obstacles, removing stuff that makes it a bad place to work,” he says.

Go do it!

Innovation also requires an atmosphere that’s open to communication. But while anyone can talk about creative ideas, the best companies are ready to take the necessary action. Stephanie Johnson, systems engineering manager at Fannie Mae in Washington, couldn’t agree more. Fannie Mae placed 25th on the Best Places list.

“This is the only company I’ve been at where you can talk to a vice-president and it’s no big hassle,” Johnson says. “At other places, I never had the opportunity to take my thoughts on how to make the company better and implement them.”

At Fannie Mae, Johnson has been able to suggest and then implement new software tools, most recently to reduce spam volumes.

Inviting employees to bring something to the table is crucial to creating a satisfying work environment.

“There’s (often) a strange notion in management that you’re the only active mind on the battlefield and everyone below you is a peon,” DeMarco says.

Conversely, people who work at the Best Places say things like, “I am empowered to influence our company’s bottom line. They genuinely trust their employees to make the right decisions to get the job done.” Or, “I’m given total authority to get my job done. I’m allowed to stretch out of my safety zone by getting interesting assignments.”

In fact, 80 per cent of employee respondents at the top 100 companies said their jobs are interesting and challenging.

A sense of pride

Combine employee empowerment with cutting-edge technology projects and a sense that you’re positively affecting society, and you’ve got a recipe for success. Indeed, 83 per cent of employee respondents said they are proud to work at their companies.

“Technology has a special place at Fannie Mae — it’s powering the American dream by introducing efficiencies in the mortgage industry, and people can see that every day in the work they do,” says Betty Thompson, vice-president of human resources.

Similarly, at Saint Luke’s Health System Inc. in Kansas City, Mo. (No. 28), IT is in the final stages of implementing an electronic intensive-care unit that will enable clinical staff to monitor 163 patients from a central location. “To do these things, our IT staff is at the cutting edge of technology,” says John Wade, CIO at the health care facility. “But they’re most excited that they’re contributing to advances in patient care.”

And Saint Luke’s shows its IT staff how much it values their contributions by offering compensation above and beyond what other hospitals offer. “We’re trying to compete with the Sprints and (other companies) in our community,” Wade says. “Traditionally, it was the nurses who had to be the highest paid, but it’s hard to attract tech skills with that mentality.”

Saint Luke’s also makes a large training investment. Whereas the average Best Places company offers seven days of training annually for its IT employees, Saint Luke’s offers 17. And managers make sure employees take advantage of this offering. “We can’t leave it to the employees — we have to take the pressure off and allow them to take advantage of the training,” Wade says.

Rounding out the employee

But you don’t have to be involved in life-and-death issues to feel like you’re making a difference. At Caterpillar Inc. in Peoria, Ill., which is ranked 56th on the list, IT employees know the company’s most recent business initiative — the Acert engine — couldn’t have been done without them.

“This breakthrough technology would not be in the marketplace if not for the involvement of IT, from virtual product development work through production and assembly,” says John Heller, CIO at Caterpillar.

The nature of Caterpillar’s business plays a key role in providing global opportunities to IT workers: Some 25 per cent of them are involved in technology deployments in Europe, Asia-Pacific and Latin America, at Caterpillar sites or at distributor and dealer locations.

And although Caterpillar offers just four days of training per year to its IT employees, it invests in workers on a daily basis. Because IT supports all aspects of Caterpillar’s supply chain, “an IT professional can have multiple careers without leaving Caterpillar,” Heller says, claiming he’s had seven careers in his 31 years at the company. In fact, 700 IT workers have left IT to work in other functional areas at Caterpillar, including accounting, purchasing and sales.

“We believe our IT ranks become some of the best managers in the company because they have a broad understanding of the business and a strong process focus,” Heller says.

“Caterpillar encourages people to not stay in one job for 15 years,” says Jeff Heinz, senior IT supervisor. “The feeling is, the broader you are, the more Caterpillar will benefit from new advances and applications.”

General Mills offers only five days of training per year, but it relies heavily on job rotation to round out employees. Marilee Giron, an IT department manager at General Mills, was hired right out of college as a programmer/analyst and within 18 months moved to a new department supporting a different part of the business using different technology. Within seven years, she earned her current position.

“I stay at General Mills because as an Hispanic woman, there are many opportunities to advance my career, through training, experience and mentoring,” she says.

The rebound effect

But IT workers don’t just want to provide value — they also want to feel valued, and Best Places companies openly recognize the importance of IT. As one employee survey respondent put it, “Senior leadership realizes that technology is the secret weapon to become the best we can be.”

At Southern California Edison Co. (No. 41), an US$11.5 billion utility in Rosemead, Calif., employees are rewarded in Academy Award fashion with SCE’s annual CIO Excellence in IT Awards ceremony. The awards include categories such as Commit and Deliver, Operational Excellence and Innovation, and Technical Literacy.

But recognition of IT’s importance was made even more clear when the CIO herself was asked to head SCE’s business process integration endeavor. This cross-company initiative is intended to improve workflows among business units and work performance throughout SCE.

“I’ve worked in shops where IT is brought on board just when the business needed technology,” says Jodi Collins, vice-president of IT. “But this is asking us to look at how to run the business and define future processes. It’s a recognition that IT is embedded throughout the business and is one of the few functions that actually sees all business processes.”

Collins says she believes that the IT organization was given this role as part of a restructuring that started five years ago and resulted in improved delivery of products and services to clients, a centre of excellence for project management, an improved work and reward system, and governance structures.

“That has gained us a lot of credibility,” she says. It has also contributed to SCE’s IT organization’s attrition rate of just two per cent, compared with the six per cent average among other companies on the Best Places list.

Of course, none of these benefits and working conditions counts if employees are fearful for the future of the company or their own jobs. “If people are worried about their jobs going offshore, it distracts from the nature of being a great place to work,” Glen says. “You have to engage people’s minds in the future, not in the past.”

Unfortunately, just 62 per cent of survey respondents said they feel their jobs are secure. General Mills attempts to quell those fears through its minimal use of contractors. “For a company our size, we outsource very little and use contractors on a limited basis,” Semmer says. “We’re effective and efficient because we hire the best out of college and develop and promote our staff from within.”

SCE uses selective offshoring to maintain employee confidence in the future. For the past eight years, the company has outsourced some of its commodity IT functions, preserving its strategic IT functions for its own staff. It had no layoffs in 2003.

“We scale using suppliers, so we don’t have employees at jeopardy,” Collins says. “It makes employees feel like it’s a stable company.”

Hothouse flowers

There are some who contend you can’t create best-place conditions — you can only encourage them to grow. “You can’t engineer a great place to work,” Glen says. “It’s like creating a bubble in the chaos of the universe that’s inherently unstable and needs to be constantly remade.”

Worse, a lot of companies may falsely believe they’re a great place to work because people aren’t leaving, says DeMarco. “But when the market turns, these people are suddenly going to be gone.”

The best a company can do is follow the example of the Best Places to Work, particularly in fostering an environment that allows IT workers to make their mark. “We’ve been hiring senior managers, and when we ask them what attracted them, it was the opportunity to make a difference,” Collins says. “We have a lot of work to do, and we want to do it in an innovative way.”

Brandel is a freelance writer in Grand Rapids, Mich. Contact her at mary.brandel@comcast.net

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