Going down fast

Skeptical, stressed, scared, sucked dry. This is how IT professionals feel about work these days. Other telling words that surfaced repeatedly during more than 30 interviews and in 200 written survey responses include fear, loathing, disgust and dread.

To be blunt, IT worker morale sucks, and it’s getting bleaker by the day. “It’s the worst I’ve ever seen,” says a 22-year IT veteran in the banking industry. “Morale is twice as low this week as it was last week.”

Research backs up that claim. In June, nearly three-fourths of 650 companies surveyed by Meta Group Inc. reported having morale problems among their IT staffs. The year before, two-thirds of executives cited poor worker morale as an issue.

No wonder spirits are plunging. The U.S. technology sector suffered yet another round of widespread layoffs during the third quarter, according to a recent report by Chicago-based recruiting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. “High-tech job cuts are on the way up as the end of the year approaches,” says CEO John A. Challenger.

Job cuts in technology jumped 60 per cent between July and September to 54,701, compared with 34,213 layoffs in the second quarter, the report said. To make matters worse, the growing number of layoffs is not being countered by any move to hire, Challenger says.

And job insecurity is just one part of the problem.

Boosting morale should be near the top of almost every CIO’s strategic agenda. But before management can devise strategies to address the problem, it must truly understand the causes of IT workers’ misery. Frequently, it’s not about money or challenges. Instead, workers point to slashed resources, unrealistic expectations, willfully blind management and inane policies and procedures as some of their biggest pain points.

These factors engender fear, exhaustion, bitterness and resentment, all of which blunt innovation and productivity. They can also cause long-term harm to workers’ overall health, according to some experts.

In a 2004 Computerworld (U.S.) survey of 9,854 IT workers, 88 per cent of the respondents said they experienced some kind of stress at work.

“We now know from research that in a work environment where there are a lot of pressure and demands and where people have very little control that substance abuse is two times higher, that heart problems and back pains are three times higher, that there’s a greater rate of infections and mental health problems,” notes Michael Koscec, president of Toronto-based Entec Corp., which specializes in measuring employee satisfaction and commitment at large companies.

Yet none of these problems is likely to be uncovered by traditional employee surveys, which tend to focus on salary, benefits and training issues. This is why experts advise managers to adopt a multifaceted approach to measuring employee morale and job satisfaction.

How employees see it

Despite their unhappiness, IT workers say their greatest fear is losing their jobs as companies continue to cut costs by shifting software development, maintenance and support work to lower-cost domestic contractors and offshore service centers.

They’ve already been made well aware by unemployed colleagues that finding a new job will be difficult, especially since there are more IT workers than jobs in many places. For example, the San Francisco area has suffered a 49 per cent IT job loss between March 2001 and April 2004, according to a study this year by the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In many cases, workers say the staffing cuts at their companies have been nothing short of brutal, leaving remaining IT professionals overworked and feeling burned out. On average, IT employees are logging 47 hours a week on the job, up from 46 hours a year ago, according to Computerworld’s 2004 Salary Survey.

IT workers also are feeling quite cynical toward top management, which they regard as having its head stuck in the sand on key issues ranging from communication to outsourcing.

“Outsourcing is euphemistically called ‘global sourcing,'” says an IT worker at a large insurer. “Memos (about outsourcing) are self-congratulatory about how it will benefit employees, totally ignoring how many fewer domestic employees we have year to year.”

He is particularly resentful about layoffs, which his employer officially refers to as “position migrations.”

“High-minded phrases and motivational meetings do not conceal the venality and incredible lack of long-term planning that offshoring represents,” he says.

At another company, IT staffers who remained on the job after many IT positions had been outsourced were switched from annual salaries to hourly wages. “Now, you have to get permission to work overtime, but you also have to get your job done. Often this means you have to falsify your time sheets because you don’t have that permission,” says an IT worker at the company. “It’s the worst I’ve ever seen. It’s just really a degrading environment. I used to work with some of the best and the brightest. Now it’s all politics and CYA.”

Fear of job loss drives other “weird behaviour,” notes a database expert with 28 years of experience who works at a large manufacturing company in the Midwest. “If you have a health issue, you don’t take your sick days because you’re afraid when you come back you won’t have a job,” she says. “If there’s a death in the family or a severe illness, people are back to work in the next day or two rather than taking a week. People aren’t taking vacation, either. Or if they do, they take a day or two at a time, so people don’t really get a rest.”

IT, R.I.P.

Underlying workers’ complaints about layoffs and burnout is a kind of mourning for what IT used to be — a well-paid profession made up of hands-on problem solvers who were respected for their abilities.

Today, in contrast, “if you want to be someone who is a doer, you pretty much have to be a contract worker,” says the database expert. “You can no longer be an employee (because) they’re hiring employees to manage and supervise the process, not to do the process. (Management) views the doers as a commodity.”

“We’re now running more like a sweat shop. We aren’t given the little professional-level luxuries that we used to have before,” notes an IT worker. “If you order a piece of ergonomic equipment, they’ll frown on you. We’re not viewed as professionals anymore but as being disposable and replaceable, so you keep your nose to the grindstone.”

“IT was a career, but now it’s a job,” says a project manager at a multibillion-dollar financial firm on the West Coast. “The way the job is now, we might as well ask people if they’d like fries with that project.”

“IT in general is not the golden boy that it was in the 1990s,” says a business intelligence manager at a Texas construction firm who has been in IT since 1984. “We did the ‘big wow’ projects in the mid to late ’90s, and now it’s kind of sweeping up. The projects are cool but don’t have as much impact.” As for mourning the old days in IT, “You get kind of used to being that knight in shining armor who comes in to save the day,” he says. “Now we’re kind of just humdrums, like we’ve been married too long.”

Expert advice

Kay Palmer, CIO at J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. in Lowell, Ark., says she can understand workers’ general dismay over the drastic changes in IT’s corporate status. “IT people already employed are seeing less IT investment and less euphoria around IT” than they did in the 1990s, she says. “IT is going from a highly valued, specially treated segment of the company to one viewed with skepticism. That’s a tough life to follow.”

One tactic Palmer has used to keep IT staffers from feeling marginalized is to publicize the top three IT projects each fiscal quarter. “When people see high-return projects, it helps them see how projects contribute to the overall (business) returns,” she says. “It also recognizes the individual people who came up with the idea for the project,” says Palmer, whose company ranked fourth on Computerworld’s 2004 list of Best Places to Work in IT.

Managers should create a similar kind of transparency around career development plans if they want to minimize IT employees’ fears, says K.C. Tomsheck, director of IT at CDW Corp., another Best Place to Work.

To this end, every one of Vernon Hills, Ill.-based CDW’s 153 IT workers has an individual development plan, “so they know precisely where they fit in,” Tomsheck says. The written document includes technology-specific training plans as well as performance expectations for the year ahead.

At Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., each of the company’s 325 IT employees has a personal development plan that maps out “where they are now and which competencies they need to develop to get where they want to go,” says Greg Martin, manager of integration. “We then use a combination of training, project assignments, mentoring and coaching sessions” for employees to reach their individual goals. “Everyone has a development plan, and we do quarterly and annual reviews of them,” Martin notes. This allays employees’ fears that they’re heading in the wrong direction professionally, he says.

No fear

Jean Delaney Nelson, vice-president and CIO at Minnesota Life Insurance Co., says the best way to avoid fear of layoffs is to avoid layoffs, which she has managed to do by hiring very conservatively. “Unlike airlines, which hire in boom times, we don’t do huge staff-ups. If we need to staff downward, we do so through attrition. We’ve never had a layoff in the IT organization — not because of a no-layoff policy, but due to very careful and prudent staffing to begin with,” she says.

St. Paul-based Minnesota Life has also standardized on a single technology set across its lines of business, and this has helped the company avoid layoffs. “All of our application developers support a standard set of tools. If we have a staff reduction in one area, we can easily move them to another,” Delaney Nelson explains.

Last but not least, CIOs at companies with relatively high IT staff morale and satisfaction levels emphasize the critical importance of clear, frequent, honest and euphemism-free communication with IT employees.

“It’s the unknown that causes anxiety and stress — not knowing if you’re going to have a job next week or be outsourced. Or knowing there’s a cost reduction, but not knowing how it’s going to happen,” says Delaney Nelson.

“If employees feel they’re not in the know, it’s a big factor that affects morale. Our managers update employees on a weekly basis. They also do a sort of temperature-taking of morale at the same time,” she says. “If you trust employees, they’ll trust you back.”

Steve Matheys, CIO at Schneider National Inc. in Green Bay, Wis., instituted a formal IT communication plan last year after two employee surveys revealed that staffers in the 470-person IT group felt that they didn’t understand the company’s enterprise strategy and that they lacked face time with executives in IT and other parts of the company.

Now, IT staffers hear news and updates about IT projects, plans and staffing directly from Matheys. “They don’t get news a day late and a dollar short and filtered down through two and three levels,” he says. Among other things, Matheys holds monthly off-site meetings to disseminate business results to the IT staff. He also writes a monthly CIO column in an IT newsletter, and he walks around the office a lot.

“The whole idea of being visible and being present gives you the opportunity to sense what’s going on” among IT employees, Matheys says. “I like to talk to the people who have been here for a while and also to the individuals who never complain. I don’t find out how they’re feeling by asking their manager but by asking them.”

The bottom line: “If you have a comprehensive approach (to assessing morale) and a willingness to listen to what people are saying, you can actually drive morale,” Matheys says. “You’ll never sense — or boost — morale by sitting in your office.”

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