Taking care of business in IT

A little less than a year ago, a tech worker named Andrew wanted to change companies. He sat at his desk and typed out a laundry list of things that he required: a short commute with an option to telecommute, a minimum salary base and a challenging and interesting position in a pre-IPO IT company (with stock options).

In the days when Andrew’s father was looking for work, this kind of list would have resulted in uproarious laughter and a lecture on how he should be happy to have a damned job in the first place, but Andrew eventually chose his position from seven suitable offers.

In order to attract and retain talented IT professionals, companies are realizing now more than ever that it is necessary to offer up a buffet of benefits and perks, educational incentives and options.

According to Cliff Tang, a Vancouver-based senior consultant and a member of the Canadian Information Processing Society, IT workers consider companies where more is more.

“People in IT want to work for companies that offer benefits like training initiatives, fair and equitable pay, and a flexible work environment, with options for contract or full-time,” Tang said. “They are looking for stock options, pay for performance, pay for overtime, curve progression, a mentoring process, a product or service that has real profit and customers, a good screening of candidates and employee-referral programs.”

St. John’s, Nfld.-based Craig Slaney, the national marketing co-chair for CIPS, notes that IT professionals are attracted to companies for more than their benefits. “People in IT are generally very creative, and they want to work in an environment that challenges their thinking.”

Edmonton’s Michael Byrne, director of computing network services at the University of Alberta, agrees with Slaney and believes the biggest mistake companies make is the belief that money is the answer to retaining qualified staff.

“It is a necessary condition, but not sufficient,” Byrne said. “People stay with a company for three reasons: they have quality people that they work with and for, they get treatment that they perceive to be fair, and they see a sense of direction to which they’re contributing.”

engage your employees

Stephen Liptrap, vice-president of human resources at NCR Canada Ltd., entertains a similar philosophy in the recruiting and retaining of high quality IT employees. Recently named one of the 35 best companies to work for in Canada by the Globe and Mail’s Report On Business, NCR offers more than a good wage and free coffee in the morning to its 1,800 full and part-time employees.

“What we really try to do is come up with good developmental assignments for our employees. These can be from getting specific projects to work on to getting to lead a merger or acquisition, to getting an expatriate assignment someplace else in the world. I think that’s a large part of why people stay with NCR,” Liptrap explained.

“We find that how engaged our employees are ties in with how successful our business will be and how long people will stay with our organization,” Liptrap said. “If people are working together on teams, they like to work together and are working on challenging and exciting assignments, they tend to stay. We’ve got benefits too, but a lot of it comes down to employees being engaged and excited about what they do.”

Patti Walters, a Toronto-based executive account manager with NCR’s Teradata systems group, is an example of an employee excited about her career and one whom NCR has been able to retain for the past 11 years. A mother of two pre-schoolers, Walters has been able to achieve a balance of work and home while on her career path at NCR. Despite calls from head-hunters, Walters has stayed loyal to NCR because she’s been able to meet all of her career objectives within one company.

“NCR gives its employees the ability to move laterally as well as vertically on the corporate ladder,” Walters explained. “I’ve worked in finance, marketing, alliance partnerships, and sales in retail, financial and telecommunications, all within one company. It’s very appealing to pursue new challenges within the life span of a career by changing positions every few years. NCR allows for that.”

distinct needs

Creating a good corporate environment is one thing, but creating a place where IT professionals can thrive is another. Byrne suggests that by matters of degree there are three key areas in which technology professionals’ requirements are distinct, and on which companies should focus.

“The first is training. There has to be adequate allowance made for training. The majority of the people in IT are interested in staying current and in developing their skills. There’s virtually nothing stable in our lives, and if we don’t train people they’re not going to be able to make the necessary changes,” Byrne said. “The second is a need for new challenges, which goes along with training. IT workers have to get a sense that what they’re dealing with isn’t the same old stuff that they’ve dealt with before.

“The third area is flexibility in terms of work schedule,” Byrne continued. “Windows of opportunity to make changes in systems are shrinking all the time, and so people require flexibility in order to deliver what’s needed while still maintaining their sanity.”

what really matters

Slaney agrees with the importance of flexibility in an industry where career burnout is an issue, and insists that the more flexibility a company offers, the more productive its employees become.

“You can only burn the candle at both ends for so long,” Slaney explained. “If a company wants to keep its employees, its HR managers have to recognize that there are a mishmash of needs within the industry right now. Some of the older IT workers are reaching a burnout phase because they’ve been constantly in this cycle of boom instead of bust and they’re getting tired, whereas the younger people in the industry haven’t quite hit that wall yet.”

“There’s a lot of talk about the young people in the industry, but there are a lot of people who have been in IT for 15 or 20 years who need different things. These people have a large amount of knowledge, but they can’t do the 18 hour work days that they could when they were in their 20s,” Slaney continued. “I’ve been in IT for 20 years, but I have a young family and don’t want to spend all of my nights working and not be able to see my kids.”

Liptrap believes that ultimately the development of best practices for creating a good work environment within a company comes from the employees themselves. By surveying its employees at the beginning and end of their time at NCR in addition to every year, the company is able to analyze how perceptions change, what is working and what its staff requires.

“Needs in IT change constantly, so we continually try to do a better job of understanding our employees,” Liptrap said. “If you sit back too long you lose any edge.”