How to keep your IT staff effective in these tough times

It’s official! Late last week, the economists at the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research convened to examine financial trends over the last 12 months.

Their conclusion?

The decline in economic activity since 2007 “was large enough to qualify as a recession.”

In fact, the Bureau said, the decline was not just large, but consistent.

And on Tuesday, the Bank of Canada warned that the global economy in on a downwards spiral, and noted for the first time that Canada is in a recession. (The central bank cut its trendsetting rate by three-quarters of a point to bring the target for the overnight rate to the lowest level in half a century at 1.5 per cent).

One of the best measures of the health of the economy is the number of people employed in paying work, and that figure has decreased in every month since last December.

Will Canadian IT jobs be affected by the deteriorating economy?

Some experts don’t see this as happening.

In a blog on author and consultant in the computing industry, Jason Eckert notes that the IT job market has been growing – not exponentially – but steadily over the past four years.

This, he says, is more likely the result of the greater need for IT to support the ever-growing knowledge worker industry in Canada.

He argues that in bad times, companies will need to become more competitive and creative in finding ways to maintain the revenue stream.

“I think that companies today are more forward-thinking when it comes to taking risks that will help solidify their position in the job market. And in today’s world, these risks almost always involve implementing the right technology using the right IT people.”

But Eckert concludes his blog observing that he could be completely wrong may have to “start considering a new career in basket weaving, pig farming or quantum chromodynamics.”

Just in case Eckert is right about his being wrong – and in the event that general economic downturn does force companies to make large IT budget cuts – how may they do that while keeping IT staff effective.

What can small and midsized businesses, in particular, do to weather a shrinking economy while still making the most of technology?

For starters, if you’re in the job market, don’t get too spooked. Executives at such job-search companies as and ExecuNet say this slump isn’t likely to be as bad as the last downturn, which happened during the aftermath of the dot-com bubble of the 1990s.

Unfortunately, however, employees are typically one of the biggest line-items on a business’s budget.

If you’re already facing the prospect of cutbacks, here are some tips for maintaining an effective IT staff and keeping your company technically proficient in lean times:

· Don’t be too quick to reach for the pink slips. Trading dedicated IT staff for part-time consultants is a popular option for many small and midsized businesses, but consultants can have hidden costs. Make sure you can get the IT support you need on a timely basis, because each hour that a critical server is down can mean significant business losses.

· If your budget demands a hiring freeze in the IT department, look for tech skills when hiring for non-IT positions. Why shouldn’t your marketing reps know HTML, or your accountants know their way around a database? Employees who can wear several hats are sure to be in high demand in lean times.

· Reward productivity, but beware of overworking IT employees, especially if you don’t understand the true nature of everything they do. Even the most eager go-getter can burn out when faced with an impossible workload. Talk to your team, find out who does what, and make sure your expectations are realistic. Your staff might already be too small.

· If you can’t hire new staff, the best thing you can do is to make your existing team more valuable. Provide opportunities for current employees to train in new skill areas, and encourage them to take them. Your company will reap the benefits, and your employees will appreciate the challenge and the chance to broaden their skills.

·  Finally, make sure your organizational structure rewards initiative and encourages entrepreneurship. Ensure that those employees who want to pitch in can do so, and don’t handcuff them with bureaucracy or misguided organizational policy. An employee who is frustrated in a down economy is much less likely to remain loyal when the pendulum swings back the other direction.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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