Remote work options and other strategies to hang on to valuable staff

Staff retention has been the concern of HR in the past, but a new multi-disciplinary approach is being driven by the vital contribution the CIO can make towards employee satisfaction.

Enabling flexible and remote working is one example, promoting a team culture through setting up social networking systems is another, while making the organization more environmentally friendly is a third.

The top challenges for retaining staff are managing a changing demographic and retaining the cream of a dwindling pool of young staff, while holding on to the older baby boomers, according to Boston Consulting Group. It came to this conclusion in its report for the European Association for Personnel Management, Key challenges through 2015.

It also identified managing work-life balance as one of the top five challenges in keeping staff. “Employees are increasingly selecting — or rejecting — jobs based on how well they can achieve work-life balance or advance personal goals and values,” it says.

“In order to attract and retain highly talented individuals, companies will therefore need to offer flexible work arrangements. They will also need to appeal to employees’ growing desire to derive a sense of greater purpose from their work.”

The report recommends companies implementing programs that allow employees to work from home and that advance corporate social responsibility.

A one-size-fits-all approach does not work for staff retention issues and this is where the CIO can come in, tailoring technology to appeal to the concerns of different generations of workers. Andrew Walker, research director at Gartner Executive Programs, identifies three generations of employees. Generation Y, today’s under 30s, have a global and environmental perspective and expect to work virtually and use instant messaging (IM). Generation X are 30 to 42 year olds who prefer web-based and email communication and are focused on work-life balance. The baby boomers (aged over 43) are prepared to work long hours and are less focused on technology or wider environmental issues.

Managing expectations

“Work-life balance is key to retaining good talent across the enterprise, particularly those in Generations X and Y. Generation X is under such pressure to allocate time to family as much as work that they will forego some salary for the right work environment,” says Walker.

“Generation Y is so used to communicating by IM and social networking using the internet that they will use these means of communication even if they are in the same work environment.”

According to Walker, green initiatives are only just taking a priority with many CIOs and it is now a key time for them to get involved. “The opportunity is much more from initiatives across the business than within IT itself,” he explains. “The CIO can drive these initiatives by measuring and analyzing where the enterprise shows wasted energy usage and share that information with recommendations for how to reduce the environmental impact.

“By doing so, CIOs will help the enterprise to respond to the current movement, improve the perception of the enterprise in the eyes of customers and also appeal as an employer, especially to Generation Y, the group that is most frustrated with the lack of action.

“A good starting point is to build alliances with other concerned C-level peers and together they should choose one or two priority areas in which success would be most worthwhile for employee retention, public relations and long-term costs.”

Green benefits

Insurance company Esure has been building its green program over the past year and IT director Mark Foulsham is at the heart of it. “We have got a company-wide green program and the level of interest in it is very high as people are interested in their contribution towards global warming,” he says.

“Individuals, not just in IT but in the rest of the company, do have strong views about what we should be doing in terms of corporate responsibility. IT has a very important contribution to this as a lot of power consumption is down to technology. IT has got to be in the heart of whatever is going on.”

Richard Dawson, IT services manager for Bracknell Forest Borough Council, has elbowed his way on to the green agenda at the council and believes there are clear staff benefits. He is responsible for systems used by 1,500 staff.

“In the past three months we have committed to reduce CO2 in the government and everybody is being asked what they’re doing. We are publishing what we’re doing internally and on the intranet. We took a benchmark before we started and power consumption costing £75,000 (US$151,070) a year now costs less than £50,000.

Youthful enthusiasm

“Younger staff especially are passionate about this and coming up with ideas. The IT department has forced its way into meetings and asked ‘can we be part of this?’ We are a major user and we have to be invited. We have specific people in the roles of environmental manager and energy manager but these are quite traditional, looking at energy bills in swimming pools for example. IT has a new spin on this, for example, we can look at different cooling methods and rather than the traditional ‘switch off your PC overnight’ we can look at power management when people are away at their desks for meetings.”

Dawson believes the CIO must drive the environmental agenda so that their organization is ahead of the rest, if staff is to value its efforts. “We are leading edge in some of the things we are trying to do. We have been working with suppliers. For example, we had 300 to 400 desktops delivered boxed with chipped rubber which we can’t recycle, so we said we would prefer to have them sent in recyclable crates.

“We have to try to be the employee of choice in an area where there are a number of large employers including BMW and Novell.”

If green issues tick the boxes for the younger Generation Y, Generation X is more likely to stick with an employer that offers flexible and remote working, to maximize use of their time.

CIOs have a role to play in changing the company culture as well as the technology to enable this, according to Gartner’s Walker. “The CIO can be a key player in managing the resistance of those who manage by observation — what they see people do — and not by objectives — the results and outcomes of what they do.”

Al-Noor Ramji, CIO for BT Group believes enabling remote working has a key role in staff retention. “Our first home worker started in 1986 and we now have 13,700 home workers and 75,000 who are equipped to work flexibly in one way or another. The company offers virtually any combination of working pattern, focusing on business targets rather than location,” he says.

Improved staff conditions bring clear benefits to the bottom line: “On average, home workers at BT are 20 per cent more productive and they save BT £6,000 a year each in office and other costs.Home workers also contribute to the environment through reduced commuting.”

Web design company Netcel has had 100 per cent staff retention for four and a half years. Although a small company, its approach to staff retention has been carefully developed and does not include remote working.

Tim Parfitt, managing director, stresses that the initial recruitment is important. “Potential employees must be self motivated and ethical.” However, he goes against the current trend for facilitating remote working as a way of keeping staff. “In the early days we had people leave because the distance to work was too great so now we look more locally. We are still very flexible, people will come in late and leave early but we need to have people here at certain times.”

Added value

Despite staff working closely, Netcel has effective social networking systems. “We do encourage everyone to share information and knowledge and we have a wiki as part of the intranet so that bits of information can be added quickly. We do have a structured way of storing knowledge of projects as well as this less formal way so that people are not holding onto knowledge to increase their power.”

HR professionals are also coming round to social networking as a key component of staff culture. Staff retention issues have been the concern of HR in the past but Deborah Fernon, adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, believes that HR and IT departments have a lot in common and can work together on this issue. “Like CIOs, the ultimate dream of human resources is to play a strategic role in the business to achieve business success. The challenge is managing talent which I am sure is keeping CIOs awake at night too. It is not just an issue for HR,” she says.

“In managing the demographic and attracting and retaining people, technology can play a role, for example in corporate responsibility. There is a war on talent. What are people looking for in your brand — flexible working or offering different and exciting aspects of the business? This is not just about HR. It includes PR, corporate communications and other areas over business. Social networking is a really amazing extension of technology that enables flexible working and helps gain and retain staff. “

BT’s Ramji believes that it is important for the CIO to understand what people respond to, and to offer that. “One could assume that pay is what is most important, but the opportunity to work on innovative programs that are intellectually stimulating or that have a huge impact on our lives as well as our work is much more compelling for most,” he says.

“We are great proponents of social networking both inside and beyond the organizational boundaries. For example, I believe that we currently have the largest single corporate representation on Facebook.”

Employees tend to use social networking informally; the challenge is taking control of it and delivering real improvements on staff culture and communication. “In 2006 we kicked things off in earnest. Up to then there had been pockets of adoption but nothing broad or ordained organizationally. We used that to our advantage and delivered a campaign to promote a revolutionary approach including asking managers to stop responding to individual comments from team members in email — and to instead only work through a team/project wiki,” says Ramji.

Corporation tools

At the BBC, of 25,000 employees 12,000 people are active users of blogs, wikis and IM. Keith Little, chief technology officer at the BBC, believes social networking systems are a good way of reflecting the way the BBC operates around peer mentoring relationships both formal and informal. “This is something we encourage and about five years ago we introduced an organizational message board, talk.gateway. Now we have blogs and wikis.

“Going forward the organization will change in nature and will have a new workforce made of people who have been blogging. If you constrain people they will go outside the organization and you will lose all that intellectual capital. The working environment is key to the BBC brand and we also have a simplicity agenda which technology helps with.”

Across the board

All these initiatives call for cross-disciplinary working — the CIO can’t go it alone if the benefits are to reach out into staff culture. At Esure green initiatives are marketing led with input from finance too. “Over the past year, we have put a team together from all areas of the business — this is not an IT project it is a business project,” says Foulsham.

“Through it we can make employees aware of what we’re doing and why and make them comfortable with anything we have to introduce. We will tell them about the CIO-led contribution to the environment such as changing the printers to duplex and that we’re going to be setting PCs to go off after hours.”

Little describes the BBC’s green agenda as only recently going into full swing but there is already a co-ordinated program of promotion around it. “The CIO leads that but it is all wrapped up in a combined communications package. We don’t do separate technical one, that is all part of the story.”

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