Pinched by flat wages, yet pressed for higher productivity, many IT professionals are just about ready to pop. Here’s how one company was able to relieve the tension.

How to help your staff survive the IT squeeze

It’s not easy to stay positive in the Great Recession, protracted recovery or whatever phrase du jour is used to describe the current global economy. That’s why the mood in the IT department at The Sedona Group in Moline, Ill., stands out like a ray of sunshine on a dreary day.

It’s not that this IT group has escaped the squeeze that the IT staffs in most industries are feeling. Although there have been no layoffs within Sedona’s IT group, total compensation has taken a hit, and workloads have grown exponentially, says David Buzzell, CIO at the workforce management solutions provider. That experience is mirrored in IT organizations throughout the country, according to Computerworld’s 2010 Salary Survey, which paints a picture of IT professionals who are pressed for higher productivity, pinched by fixed wages and very nearly ready to explode.

According to the survey, everything is wrong-side up: Bonuses and benefits are way down, and workloads and work hours have increased. Meanwhile, salaries are stagnant (rising just a microscopic 0.7 per cent on average), and — not surprisingly — satisfaction is on the wane.

“More responsibilities — with pay cuts and more-costly benefits — does not make employees happy,” says a technical services manager at a home furnishings retailer, who asked to remain anonymous. His bonus, which had represented 20 per cent to 30 per cent of his annual pay, was eliminated, he says, and his salary was frozen a few years back. Vacation was also cut, with workers required to earn it throughout the year, and they are now charged higher health insurance premiums.

But Sedona’s IT group has met its workload and compensation challenge with creativity and a recognition of what it takes to alleviate anxiety and maintain morale. For instance, the IT staff has looked at taking full advantage of low-cost benefits, such as training opportunities that are included with its Microsoft Developer Network subscription, exploring new projects or investigating different programming techniques. The staff also looks for opportunities to tap into the special interests of employees, which “makes the research and testing more interesting for them and gives them something positive to concentrate on,” Buzzell says.

He is also careful not to cut low-cost programs that provide a large boost to staff morale. For instance, Sedona has a PC purchase program through which it offers 18 months of 0 per cent financing to people who want to purchase a home computer. In addition, “as computers come out of production, we offer older computers to staff members and their families for no cost,” Buzzell says. “Or within the IT department, we will use these older computers to often upgrade a staff member’s computer at home.”

Not that it’s been easy. “The demands and the workload are growing exponentially,” Buzzell says. “Between security risks, a more complex business environment and more demands for increased functionality and innovation — but without the staff levels to take on more projects or funding to implement them — it’s hard to make progress moving forward.”

License to Grumble

Anecdotes illustrating the impact of the downturn abound in IT. And worker complaints are common in companies that don’t take steps to shore up morale, as Sedona does. As a vice president at a luxury goods manufacturer says, “Bigger workloads in IT are a result of all other departments attempting to improve productivity because of the smaller workforce. They need IT to help them with this, so there is even more work for us to do.” At the same time, he says, salaries were cut 10 per cent across the board at his company and bonuses were eliminated, as was the 401(k) matching program.

In some cases, insult has followed injury. “We were told we were going to have new responsibilities and new systems we would have to manage,” the technical services manager says. “The next week, we were told to lay off two employees within the group that would have to do it.”

What’s particularly difficult for IT professionals is that, as engineers, they are devoted to ideas of progress and forward motion, says Paul Glen, a Computerworld columnist, author, management consultant and frequent speaker on the topic of managing IT professionals. “When things slow down and we’re just staying in place, it’s hard — it violates assumptions about our value,” he says. “We want to create innovation, lower costs, move things forward. But right now, it’s mostly about keeping things running, and maintenance doesn’t feel like progress.”

Frustration stemming from work conditions is resulting in low job satisfaction, even among people with a generally strong work ethic. The luxury goods maker vice president, for instance, sees signs that the desire to “go the extra mile” is waning. “People find it easier to schedule some vacation time, call in sick slightly more often and do not stay extremely late as much as before,” he says.

Others have simply hit bottom. “I feel very little to no importance is given to the IT department until something breaks,” says an IS manager at a cleaning supply company.

The mood is low enough that some observers foresee high IT turnover as the economy recovers and job opportunities open up. “I believe many IT personnel will be looking at changes in their career to explore new opportunities, learning experiences or simply just a change of pace,” Buzzell says.

Even now, adds the technical services manager, “just about everyone here is looking for a new way to provide for their families.”

Countermoves

Which brings us back to Sedona. Despite the economy, Buzzell says there’s been a fairly positive attitude within the IT department, thanks to measures he and the company have taken to alleviate anxiety. Those steps have included increased communication and visibility by the owners, who keep the staff up to date and informed on progress and trends within the industry.

“Nothing is more dangerous to morale than not knowing what’s coming next,” Buzzell says. Other steps include events that allow staff members to have fun while benefiting the community, like bowl-athons and single-day work projects with groups like United Way.

Sometimes it’s the small things that really count. With salaries frozen, Buzzell purchased a powerful PC at Sam’s Club and allowed a staff member to borrow it as his home computer. During a project meeting, he discovered that this same staff member was working at home on a step of a new technical process that Buzzell wanted to explore at Sedona.

“Being able to provide him a much better machine for home, I know I will gain a lot of increased productivity at work,” Buzzell says. “This opportunity has really impacted this individual, so for a very low cost, I’ve helped to increase productivity and greatly help build morale.”

In the end, Glen tells IT professionals who are frustrated with their circumstances — perhaps rightfully, in many cases — to resist getting wrapped up with the idea of money as a measure of personal value. “It’s a measure of the market,” he says. “My advice is to get over it. Be glad you’ve got a job at the moment. It’s natural to feel trapped, and it’s natural to feel resentful at the rising expectations. But feeling stuck and resentful is a lethal combination.”

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at marybrandel@verizon.net.

Source: Computerworld.com

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