Maintaining morale

The economic downturn has eased retention woes, but IT executives now have to worry about maintaining morale.

“When you have low turnover, your people may leave on the job,” says Kathy Fleenor, manager of emerging digital technologies for Eastman Chemical Co. In this case, employees may still show up but they’ve mentally checked out of the job. She should know. Her company is based in Kingsport, Tenn., where employees don’t have a lot of job choices even in boom times.

So how do you keep morale up when the economy is making people feel less valued and monetary rewards may not be possible? The good news is that studies consistently indicate that money isn’t the top job-satisfaction factor. In a survey by Career Systems International Inc. and The Jordan Evans Group, salary ranked a distant fourth behind exciting and challenging work; career growth, learning and development; and working with great people.

“Historically, engineers haven’t been motivated primarily by monetary incentives,” says Greg Mack, vice-president of IT for Syntek Technologies Inc., a professional-services firm in Arlington, Va. “They want to be in a challenging environment where they feel they are making valuable contributions.”

If money isn’t an option, establish that upfront and ask what else people want. You may have to say no to the first few requests, but if you push through this uncomfortable beginning, the employee will get to lots of things you can address.

“Probably three out of five requests are things that fall within your sphere of influence,” says Beverly Kaye, founder of Career Systems International in Scranton, Pa., and co-author of Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em: Getting Good People to Stay.

Fleenor’s group at Eastman Chemical kept a few team members happy by letting them make lateral moves into new jobs with more interesting work.

Being asked makes people feel cared about and important. Kaye recommends keeping a file of each employee’s answers, and reviewing them once a month to see what you’ve done to meet individual needs.

Technical people rate challenge and career-development opportunities particularly high, so efforts in this direction should reap the most morale dividends. Let them go to local conferences, get them tools and training, and encourage mentoring and continuing education.

“They see you are letting them take some of the organization’s time to get better at what they do, which tells them you value them,” Mack says.

Despite the current slump, labour statistics indicate there is still a shortage of skilled IT people. This means tremendous opportunities for your team, so helping members identify and pursue growth paths can go a long way toward maintaining good morale, says Frank Bernhard of Omni Consulting Group. And while maintenance-mode IT isn’t very rewarding, your staff can use the lull to improve internal processes. This can have a substantial impact on operations without costing much.

“IT has become such an important arm of business that IT teams must continue to build applications,” Bernhard adds. “Customer and software analytics is a big area. You have all this infrastructure, and now you need to make it perform.”

Let’s Talk

Above all, take time to listen. “That’s very important in these tougher times,” says John Challenger, CEO of consultancy Challenger, Gray and Christmas. “Companies need to find out what their IT people are concerned about.”

Sometimes a quality-of-life issue such as spending more time with family is foremost. Eastman Chemical makes it easy for employees to work at home, paying for broadband access and loaning computer equipment.

It’s easier to get dialogues going these days because employees are more likely to come in, sit down and talk. “In part, they are seeking reassurance that they have a job and that you value them,” Mack says.

A lot of employee wishes are relatively easy and inexpensive to accommodate, such as flex time and telecommuting opportunities, or giving an extra day off because of a special need. Other options might include achievement awards, and sending flowers or some other token of appreciation to the spouses of staff members who have been putting in a lot of overtime. Fleenor finds that taking time off once a month for a group outing – whether recreational or work-related – helps to energize her staff.

What’s more, it’s important to give people a sense of what they’re contributing to the company’s mission, not just to the IT effort. At year-end, Fleenor’s team members must evaluate themselves along these lines.

“They visit the customers, and come up with ways for the salespeople to do customer solutions selling, rather than just sell products,” Fleenor says. “These days, there are ways to improve customer relations with e-business initiatives.” Her people score more evaluation points if something they came up with is customer-focused, or gets applied more broadly than its initial intent.

Finally, foster a sense of community and teamwork. “Today, a lot of companies are looking for ways to rally people around a larger purpose,” Challenger says. “This might include participating in relief efforts, such as volunteering as a group, or donating some of the holiday party funds.

“You can build morale by bringing people together, not just by rewarding them individually,” he says.

Susan Breidenbach is a freelance technology journalist and consultant. She can be reached

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