Use low-cost alternatives to keep workers

No one set of techniques will keep your workers within your employment walls, but there are measures you can take.

The following low-cost ideas are essential pieces of the retention puzzle.

1. Flexible hours, and 2. Telecommuting. Many IT executives say flexible hours and telecommuting are among their most effective low-cost incentives. However, these two perks don’t enjoy their former status as progressive measures in the war for talent for two reasons. First, they benefit the company as much as the employee, and second, many employees do not use them.

“I think of flexible hours and telecommuting as making better use of our overall resources. In effect, we have people that cover for us around the clock. It’s a benefit to the company more than anything else,” said Mike Natan, chief information officer at Reliance Insurance, in Philadelphia, and CIO of New York-based Reliance National Insurance.

3. Praise. Praise by a manager still works wonders. Lynne Halpin, chief information officer and vice-president of information systems at Detroit Edison, the Detroit-based electric company, said it’s most important for junior IT people.

“They need to be acknowledged for having the right demeanor, answers, work process and practices,” Halpin said.

Added Danny Murphy, director of information technology for the city of Phoenix: “Praise is always good as long as it’s not overdone. If you praise everyone equally, what’s the praise worth?”

4. Employees training employees. Training can be a low-cost incentive when employees teach each other. “Many companies could leverage their best talent to do technology transfer,” Halpin said. “It has the advantages of reducing training dollars and giving smart people a forum for having their abilities recognized.”

5. Clear career paths. Another retention device is to make clear for IT workers what is required to get promoted to higher-level jobs.

The Principal Financial Group has spent about two years clarifying its IT career paths. Suzanne Williams, senior training analyst at the Des Moines, Iowa, insurance and financial services company, said it has helped retention.

6. Work with cutting-edge technology. Although some IT managers advocate letting people work on special or new technology projects as a reward, others point out that this can be difficult.

“It’s a problem because you have to ration it,” Natan said. “You have to make sure that everyone is getting some opportunity, and that the high-potential types are getting every opportunity.”

It’s also important to watch out for backlash from people who didn’t get the opportunities they wanted.

Murphy tries to give IT people a chance to work on desirable projects by putting the employees in a pool from which new projects are staffed.

7. Shielding IT from some users. One of the more controversial low-cost retention methods involves shielding IT people from unhappy users. Natan does it through what he calls the “business advocacy group,” a set of IT volunteers that handles interaction with users, such as gathering requirements and setting expectations. Those IT people become the lightning rods for the IT shop, allowing others to focus on their work.

“You have to be careful, because some people are going to enjoy a lot of interaction with users, and shielding them is not the right solution,” Natan said. “But a lot of people are more interested in the technology. So, if people don’t want to be bothered by users, I make sure they aren’t.”

But others see risk in this approach.

“Buffering IT workers encourages them to have their heads in the sand,” said Jack Erdlen, Boston-based vice-president of the human resources division at the IT personnel company Romac International. He does agree, though, that managers shouldn’t let users “go directly to IT workers and pound on them.”

8. Emphasize the value of benefits package. If your company offers good benefits, make sure your employees know it.

9. Supportive culture. No one denies the retention value of a culture that celebrates birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions.

“I can spot the managers and departments that pay more attention to those things,” Williams said. “And when I look at IT exit interviews, I can pinpoint many times where we quite possibly could have held on to an individual if we had paid more attention to personal needs.”

But if the culture is initiated by upper management, it may not be as effective. “I don’t want to create something like that on a company-wide basis, because then it becomes bureaucratic and depersonalized,” Natan said.

10. Small gifts and cash prizes. Most IT executives say small gifts such as sports tickets, free meals or on-the-spot cash awards of $50 to $75 are useful mainly as a way to recognize employees’ accomplishments. The trouble with those incentives is that they’ve become commonplace, Bartlett said.

What is important is to combine small gifts with public recognition. “Like most folks, IT people like to be recognized by their peers,” Natan said. “It’s not the free dinner that’s important, but that the IT person is recognized in front of their folks. Recognition is a motivator, and lack of recognition is a real demotivator.”

Small cash awards are not a strong enough incentive to promote retention by themselves, Halpin said.

Alexander is a freelance writer in Edina, Minn.