Mastering motivation

Employees are riding an economic and emotional roller coaster driven by volatile markets, corporate layoffs, and global unrest. In trying times, IT managers must take proactive actions to keep employees on task and motivated. Managers can implement many of these activities at little or no cost – a boon to IT departments facing static budgets.

“The key to motivation is communication,” says Allan McLaughlin, senior vice-president and chief technology officer of LexisNexis, a publisher and provider of information to industry, government, and academia in Dayton, Ohio. “As time moves on things change, sometimes fast, sometimes slow….Change [without] clear communication makes [employees] feel disconnected.”

And disconnected employees are not motivated to work to their fullest potential. Finding a way to avoid this situation requires some insight into the workers themselves.

“This is a very hard time to motivate employees, but it’s possible to create a culture of enthusiasm and learning without spending money,” says Susan Dallas, research director for business management of IT at Gartner, in San Diego. “Not everyone is motivated the same way. You shouldn’t assume that it’s a one-size-fits-all solution. You need to go after motivation with as many quivers as possible.”

By implementing a wide range of low-cost motivational strategies IT managers can improve staff retention and productivity even at a time when they may be asking employees to take on new roles or responsibilities.

Open Lines of Communication

“When economic times are bad or when a company is having a hard time, you see a lot of managers retreat into their offices because they’re also demoralized,” Dallas observes. “Instead, they need to be an even more visible presence.”

First and foremost, managers need to address employee concerns through open, straightforward conversation, and then keep people focused on the job and motivated, says McLaughlin. For example, every other week McLaughlin holds “skip-level” meetings, where he meets and talks informally with 10 or 15 employees randomly picked from his staff of 830. “The only rule is that there are not rules to the meeting,” he explains. “Any question, any issue is open for discussion.”

McLaughlin says that employees look forward to the chance to talk with the boss, to discuss their opinions on a variety of matters, and to meet staff from other departments. The skip-level meetings work, he says, because “when [the employees] leave the meetings, the only action items are for me.”

In addition, McLaughlin shares a modified version of his executive status report throughout the organization. “Now employees know what’s going on. This makes them feel connected and it doesn’t take much extra effort.”

Experts also suggest involving employees in discussions on how change can be implemented most effectively. For example, solicit staff advice on how to speed up a project time line. Employees will be more supportive of needed changes.

Tailor Rewards to Interests

If your department isn’t able to offer salary increases or attractive project bonuses this year, don’t despair. Many managers believe that financial rewards are a small part of employee motivation.

“I think the most important thing in motivating an individual is understanding who they are,” says Justin Yaros, chief information officer (CIO) of Sony Pictures Entertainment, in Culver City, Calif. “If you don’t know an individual’s desires and interests, there’s no way that you can provide the right framework to be motivated.”

The simplest way to discover staff members’ professional goals and personal interests is to talk – formally and casually – with them on an individual basis, managers say. Find out if they are comfortable in their current position, if they find other work more interesting, and where they would like to be a few years down the road. Try to also discover what drives each employee.

“It’s a big mistake to assume that everybody wants advancements,” Yaros adds. “Some are motivated by what they do with their family and nothing in the job overly excites them. That doesn’t mean they can’t be motivated to do a good job.”

By discovering employees’ interests, managers can offer rewards that complement personal and professional desires, such as providing more flexible work schedules to those most interested in quality time with family and a structured plan for advancement for those driven more by professional ambition, he explains.

Broaden Skills

“The No. 1 motivator for IT folks is having interesting work to do, followed closely by maintaining and developing new skills,” says David Van De Voort, principal consultant and leader of the IT work force effectiveness group at William M. Mercer, an HR consultancy in Chicago. Experts say that companies should retain IT training dollars and help interested IT staffers sharpen business skills.

“People have been cutting training budgets like mad. In certain areas, that’s OK. But in technology, if you cut the training budget, you’re really limiting the people working for you. You’re putting the kiss of death on their career,” Gartner’s Dallas notes. “Even though training budgets have been cut, that doesn’t mean training has to stop.”

“We highly encourage [IT] employees to…grow their careers and skills outside the technical arena,” says McLaughlin. “We help place people on association boards. They can grow their skills and acquire different learning experiences: strategic issues, staffing, budgeting.”

McLaughlin also helped institute a program where two LexisNexis IT employees work at a local technical association full time for one year. “They’re learning things they wouldn’t get in corporate IT.”

Show Appreciation Each Day

Recognition and appreciation of employee efforts can go a long way toward improving staff morale, and often don’t cost a dime. By regularly thanking employees and acknowledging exceptional contributions in front of peers, managers can foster a strong sense of loyalty and promote a greater interest in work activities, experts say.

“If people get the sense that their work isn’t important, that’s a turnover driver that’s very hard to combat. Before, IT employees could vote with their feet and leave. Now there’s the risk that people will be unmotivated and stay,” Van De Voort warns. “Express appreciation. Make sure that there are positive messages coming from the chief executive officer, chief financial officer, and CIO of the continued importance of IT.”

Van De Voort even encourages executives to spend time each week personally contacting employees to reinforce the importance of their contributions from the top, rather than employees hearing only from their direct supervisors.

Other low-cost expressions of appreciation include thank-you notes, verbal compliments, staff awards, noting accomplishments in internal publications, and inexpensive rewards such as movie tickets or gift certificates.

McLaughlin found one measure made a big difference: refusing to put his staff in smaller cubicles. The company was in the process of downsizing cubicles to fit more employees in less space, but McLaughlin found out in his skip-level meetings that “employees took a real offence to that. It was very [demoralizing] to take their workspace away from them.”

McLaughlin says he “bet his career” on the fact that by acquiring more real estate and leaving cubicles as they were, instead of minimizing employees’ space, turnover and morale would improve. And, as it turned out, he was correct.

“We took 10 points off the turnover rate and got some stability,” McLaughlin says. “If people think you care, they will return the favour.”

Budget-wise Morale Boosters

Many methods of increasing staff motivation are free or cost only a few dollars.