Be the best IT you can be: tech staff retention today

Canadian companies are trying to entice—and keep—IT staff, but what’s the best way to do so? ComputerWorld Canada looks at ways to hold on to your IT staffers through both old-fashioned measures and new, including telework, social media, and…nap rooms?

From wearing pyjamas at work…

Ever feel like curling up in a corner of your office and taking a nap? You might consider a workplace with a nap room — they do exist. That’s one of the perks of working at Intuit Canada, which has regularly turned up on “Best Companies To Work For” lists.

People today are struggling with work-life balance, said Cheryll Watson, manager of communications and culture with Intuit Canada.

The company runs a wellness program that includes more than your typical gym subsidy: on-site massage therapists and acupuncturists, a monthly social where beer and appetizers are served and an annual wellness fair featuring everything from chiropractors to healthy food distributors.

Then there are nap rooms, which feature a single bed with fresh linens and blankets, an alarm clock and a Do Not Disturb sign for the door.

If a catnap isn’t your cup of tea, then you can always take a walk on a path through a nearby ravine. Watson takes part in a weekly circuit-training workout with a personal trainer every Wednesday at lunch — provided free of charge by the company. An annual employee survey gauges the appeal of different programs — what worked, and what didn’t.

Intuit’s IT staffers stay satisfied in their own way as well. For Don Fedrau, the director of information technology, running his staff into the ground to deliver the requirements of the business doesn’t make sense. “We look to better resource management programs so we can see the collisions before they happen in terms of demand for people’s time,” he said.

Many organizations need to improve in this area because, if you burn out your employees, they’re not going to stay. This is where flex-hours come in. Fedrau, for example, focuses on getting alignment with his staff on what needs to be done and provides them with flexibility in how they’re going to accomplish that.

Intuit’s annual employee survey, conducted by an outside consulting firm, places Intuit in the top 10 per cent among high-tech companies in employee engagement. Its highest-rated dimensions included purpose and goals (92 per cent favourable), treatment and inclusion (86 per cent favourable) and teamwork and community (83 per cent favourable).

…to working in your pyjamas

Long commute times and long hours are another issue, but telework is becoming a more viable option, and the technology has come a long way. “Over the years I’ve tried a number of different teleworking technologies and it’s unbelievable the amount of time you can burn trying to get a VPN connection to work or figure out why your PC is chopping up your voice call,” said Ted Schirk, director of SP marketing with Cisco Canada, a hardcore Cisco Virtual Office user. The product extends an enterprise to a remote workforce with video, voice, wireless and data services.

Schirk lives northwest of Brampton, while his office is located in downtown Toronto. “That is one unbelievable drive, so I’m really glad for this technology,” he said. In fact, he was recently recruited from a competitor, and the option to telework was a big part of his decision to change jobs. “There was technology available to give me the work-life balance I was looking for.”

He works with a global team, and often does conference calls late at night or early in the morning. That means in the middle of the day, if there’s time available, he can take care of some personal chores. “Most companies agree that’s a great retention ability,” he said.

Generation Why?

Boomers are retiring, while Generation Y is entering the workforce, which means two clashing cultures. Thanks to Generation Y, social networking and Web 2.0 technologies are starting to move from the consumer world into business.

“We’re even seeing some companies experiment with recruitment on Second Life and other virtual worlds,” said Vinay Nair, research manager of Canadian enterprise applications research with IDC Canada.

The Vancouver Police Department, for example, is looking for 200 new officers over the next two years, but wants tech-savvy recruits. “You need to go where they hang out,” he said.

According to Nair, social networking allows employees to be more engaged with their colleagues and opens up new relationships that may not have formed because of lack of physical contact. But these tools are still at the early adoption stage and few companies are actually experimenting with them.

While there’s still resistance to social media at work, companies may be forced to change. “If you bring a young, fresh guy from the University of Waterloo into a stodgy fax machine culture, you might not keep him very long,” he said. A portal, however, is a good way to start, since it can be extended out to include discussion groups, blogs, wikis and other collaboration tools.

Salary is still important, but it’s not the be-all-end-all, especially for a new generation that wants flex-hours and professional development, according to Igor Abramovitch, branch manager of technology at Robert Half Technology.

Gen Y workers are looking for career growth and want to pick up new skills — not just technical skills, but leadership, coaching and management skills.

And they don’t want to wait five years to get promoted. They’re looking for advancement sooner, if the performance is there. “Instant gratification is very important,” Abramovitch said. “If they don’t know something, they jump online and know the answer in five minutes, so having those tools in the enterprise is becoming more important.”

Candidates are making decisions in favour of companies that offer flex-hours, the ability to work from home and opportunities for career growth.

You’ve really got a hold on me

Not that long ago, people were grateful to have a job — any job — because there was so much competition in the market. And if you didn’t like it, you were replaceable. That’s not the case anymore, what with the impeding shortage of qualified IT workers. Now, if you don’t like your working conditions, it’s easy to jump ship. So what makes employees want to stay put?

“It’s more complex than it’s ever been,” said Andrew Dillane, CIO of CNC Global. “There’s satisfying the needs of Generation Y, Generation X and the traditionalists.” But, if people can synthesize their own value to the organization, that makes them feel much more valuable, he said. So his company started a monthly sharing session where IT workers share what they’ve done and how it’s contributed to the company’s strategy.

“When people have to get up and present on it, it helps them think about what they’re doing that’s important and it helps to guide their decision-making moving forward,” he said. “Initially it was a challenge, because people had a hard time synthesizing their value.” Now, at the end of each session, an award is given to the IT Genius of the Month. “It’s very simple, but very effective,” he said. “We have a lot of experience from the industry on our team and we manage to maintain that.”

The key for CIOs and IT managers is to understand the personalities of the players on their team because they’re all different, from age to temperament to career objectives, said James Norrie, director of the Ted Rogers School of Information Technology Management at Ryerson University.

“The best leaders I know are those who can personalize what the business needs from the employee and, in turn, deliver what the employee needs from the business,” he said, adding that, in some cases, that means management getting out of the way. “We can no longer crawl into the technology cocoon,” Norrie said. “Invest heavily in your people, but expect lots of them.”

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