Headaches, heartaches and the cost of stress

It’s not about the money. It’s the intangibles.

The growth experienced by the IT industry over the last 15 years has experts predicting a shortage of skilled personnel to fill the estimated 30,000 vacant IT positions in Canada come the new century. That means any programmer or technician worth his/her salt has real bargaining power when choosing which employer to pursue.

As some can attest, a good salary and a respectable benefits package is only a part of the picture in the modern work environment.

“It’s not all salary, it’s also about the work environment and a creative license,” said Craig Slaney, director of research and human resources development for Operation Online in St. John’s, Nfld. “Look at some company’s dress-down policies for example, the dress code in the workplace has changed dramatically in the last few years…personally I feel a tie restricts blood flow. I don’t know why we do it. You have this piece of material tied tightly around your neck, squeezing your brain. It’s got to impact how you work.”

He also said companies should offer ways to reward their staff without simply throwing money.

Slaney, on loan to Operation Online from his permanent gig as the head of IT for Newfoundland’s Department of Education, suggested employers need to offer their employees intangible values – like living on the Rock.

“Where else can you go from downtown on a Friday at 5:00 to standing by a pond in total isolation within 20 minutes and feel completely relaxed,” he said. “It’s the intangible values that mean so much…people are starting to realize that.”

But, despite Premier Brian Tobin’s best efforts, it’s doubtful all of Silicon Valley North is going to relocate to St. John’s anytime soon.

“London Life didn’t have a cappuccino machine in their office, that’s essential,” said Jonathan Tice, senior director of marketing for Sun Netscape Alliance in Toronto, as he recalled his days working in the insurance industry. “[Companies] need to find fun things, community-oriented things that will help bring together the culture of a company.”

So is there a caffeine deficiency resonating throughout the IT industry in this country?

“We have a terrific expresso machine in our office,” said Kevin Dunal, vice-president of the Americas for Adobe Systems, effectively squashing the aforementioned suspicion. “It’s all in the total package of the office…the creative comforts.”

Meanwhile, the drone of the average work week can drag to a numbing crawl at times. Or it rages forward with blinding speed, which can translate into migraine-inducing stress. That fact is not lost on Tice.

“I don’t think it’s reached epidemic proportions,” he added. “But things that used to be a buffer zone (for employees), be it the production cycle for instance, are gone now due to the immediacy of communication.”

Carrot-dangling before the drooping eyes of overworked IT employees can also include subsidized child care services or a free membership to a local gymnasium. Regardless, it’s high time to pass the artificial sweetener for the beleaguered masses. Maybe a pair of complimentary tickets to the hockey game would sweeten the pot. But whatever the perk, there’s little doubt the high-tech society’s collective attitude towards what a company should offer an employee in return for a 50 to 70-hour work week should encompass more than overtime pay and a comprehensive dental plan.

“[The increased demand for incentives] usually revolves around two major categories: one is a balance to life and the other is the success of a company,” said Andy Kroen, vice-president of human resources for Sun Microsystems of Canada Inc. “It all depends upon the candidate, [and it’s more true] in the senior positions or executive positions. They are very much looking at equity.”

In Kroen’s experience – a 22-year human resources veteran, 13 of those years with Sun – individuals are more often seeking the opportunity to be a part of a company’s success through a long-term pay equity agreement. That bodes well for the company, Kroen added, as it helps solidify that individual’s prowess for an extended period of time.

According to Faye West, director of IT services, Alberta Research Council, IT workers are not above taking advantage of the perceived skills shortage to hike up their own worth.

“To quote Michael Douglas, ‘greed is good’,” West said. “I think there’s an awareness of a shortage of people out there and so some people feel they can ask for whatever they want.”

Jim Sinur figures IT professionals are feeling used up.

“We’re burning people out, we’re killing them in the name of high production and keeping the stocks up,” said the vice-president of application development for the Gartner Group. “The world is speeding up so fast people are beleaguered…what we need to offer people are creative benefits, things that make people feel good…go look at Fortune’s 100 best places to work and become one of those places.”

respecting down time

The heady expectations heaped upon developers, coders and programmers undoubtedly forces people in these professions – and in all factions of IT – to don a variety of hats. It is this increased responsibility that can lead a weary-eyed colleague into the arena of the unwell – or feeling burnt out.

“Off-line time is essential and a culture needs to be brought in to get off-line,” Tice charged. “In a normal business environment, that wouldn’t be acceptable, but (in the IT industry) when you work 20 hours per day, you need to respect those four hours (of private time).”

But West added that feeling burnt-out isn’t a direct result of hard work.

“We’re burning people out in a lot of industries, it’s just probably easier to do in IT because of the rate of change,” she said. “Burn out happens when you feel you’re lacking a sense of accomplishment…it doesn’t happen from just working hard.”

When posed with the question, “What is the most outlandish request you personally had to deal with?,” our participants responded:

Kroen: “[I was] asked recently if in a period of three years, can [the employee] get two years of salary while taking one year off.”

Tice: “I had a colleague who wanted to write a book while working with me, which meant he/she wanted to have a 35-hour work week so there was more time to work on the book.”

Dunal: “This didn’t happen at Adobe, but I can recall one individual who insisted he needed to be seen driving a BMW because it set the proper image for the company.”

Next to an expresso machine, what is an example of a unique or proactive solution that instills a creative or positive work environment?

Slaney: “One large company here (in Newfoundland) is trying to build company loyalty with a ‘Get out of jail free card’ initiative. Each time [employees] do good work on a project, they collect one of these cards. If they screw up on another project and the boss comes to rag at them, the employee just produces one of the cards and the boss can’t say anything. It’s an interesting concept.”

West: “We provide cell phones and home computers for our IT staff so they can work from home if life issues arise that requires them to be there.”

Tice: “On a quarterly basis our company goes indoor rock climbing.”

Dunal: “I’ll treat my staff to a ski chalet weekend at the conclusion of a trade show in Vancouver, for example…we hold a quarterly retreat called True North where every individual in our company is involved in a planning session in a relaxed environment away from the office for a weekend.”

going south

The Great Canadian Brain Drain is also a much-vaunted dilemma plaguing Canuck-based firms.

That being said, a significant number of skilled IT personnel have emigrated to the United States to pursue their idyllic existence, and the threat of an American exodus beckons still.

“The general challenge of IT and the work volume is stressful enough, couple that with the high calibre of skilled employees and I can attest for our company, a lot of attempts are being made (by American companies) on our people to entice them (to move to the U.S.),” Kroen said. “That creates its own stressful environment too…you can see the dollar signs and less taxes.”

So if it’s stress that’s killing the technologically elite, what is the remedy?

Tice: “Off-line time.”

Slaney: “Intangibles.”

Dunal: “Time away from the office.”

Okay, but how about an expresso machine at home? “It never hurts to ask,” chortled Tice.