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Hot and Bothered

Hot and Bothered

David Hume, vice president of permanent placement for St. Louis-based Bradford & Galt Inc., answered readers' questions on CIO.com about why IT professionals become burned out and what managers can do to prevent it Q: Information technology encourages talented individuals to job hop because demand is so high. IS departments hire young talent to minimise salary costs. When these employees build skills and confidence/ they move on because they are given too much work to complete in Internet time. Any suggestions for retaining these talented people?

A: It's hard to fight the free market. If you're giving them marketable skills, about the only highly effective retention technique is to keep their salaries quickly escalating in step with their rising values in the marketplace. If some of that compensation is deferred and would create an incentive to stay around, that might be OK. A great 401(k), stock options or retention bonuses are all possibilities. Great managers also help. The more flexibility in the workplace, creative freedom and learning opportunities you provide, the better. But all of those things may be overshadowed by an offer of US$20,000 more than what you're paying. You could also tie a tuition-reimbursement program into a contract that requires staying for a period of time to avoid repayment. But it isn't always productive to have someone stay just because they'd owe you a lot if they left. Usually they'll make you pay by producing less and by having a negative effect on morale.

Q: I work for a large Fortune 500 retailer. This company has been through an abnormal amount of executive management changes in a single year. Each change has brought with it different management styles and expectations. Over and over the employees have adapted and changed course. Now they are tired and becoming wary of the start/stop mentality. They have stopped thinking for themselves and are becoming cynical of moving forward with any agenda. Any ideas on how we can improve this situation?

A: The best option is to open up the lines of communication as much as possible. Being frustrated is one thing; being frustrated and feeling like you can't express your opinion is even worse. The management style at this company sounds very "top-down" and the constantly changing priorities and lack of buy-in are reflective of a disenfranchised staff. I would test the limits of how much information you can give the staff and try to keep them well-informed as to the direction of where things are going. I would also set up an avenue for them to share their frustrations or voice their concerns. You may not be able to solve all the issues, but you might 1/2nd that there are some complaints that you can do something about. If, as midlevel managers, you just listen and understand the issues, you will likely gain more loyalty from the staff. If the corporation itself is working to demotivate staff (unintentionally perhaps), then trying to form a stronger team bond and more loyalty to the individuals they work for may be the best strategy. Even changing a few issues that are important to the staff will go a long way. If you try to hit upper management with complaints about its entire strategy and approach, you're unlikely to get anywhere and will appear disloyal. However, suggestions that look to change the practices rather than the philosophies may be effective, especially if the suggestions can be characterised in terms that will be good for the upper managers (like cost savings, reduced turnover, better adherence to deadlines and so on).

Q: As my company's information technology leader, I have noticed a dramatic shift whereby we have become very project driven rather than using the strategic model we used to follow. With this change comes deadlines, pressures and stress because it is a very competitive environment. I used to have a good relationship with my development teams, project leaders and support staff, but now I notice problems such as tardiness and a certain sarcasm or silence when I approach them with new assignments. What can I do?

A: There is a lot to learn from the dotcom startup companies. They work their staffs into the ground in very high-pressure business situations. What they do right is accept their business climate and focus on what they can do to make the environment as hospitable as possible. If people are coming in late, maybe they need flexitime. If the environment is high stress, then maybe they need some escape valves like a party, a catered lunch or a golf outing. Four-day workweeks are awfully hard to walk away from. Making things as relaxed as possible in terms of dress, management style and rules will help take the edge off. Of course, being able to bring your cat to work and wear cutoffs is appealing to some information technology professionals, but it's the stock options that keep them pushing over long hours. Though not everyone can offer stock options, building in a bonus system based on company and personal performance can really help to keep one pushing hard. It's easy to burn out when your efforts only seem to contribute to another's benefit. If you're included in the stake then it's a lot easier to stay fired up.

Q: My company is going through a major reorganisation and this may potentially mean layoffs. Since March it has been announcing the reorganisation in pieces. People are worried about their jobs and consequently most people have become so distracted by this issue that they aren't really trying to do their work anymore. A few of us still care. What can we do to stop from getting burned out?

A: I have seen reorganisations, even those with layoffs, create some tremendous opportunities for those that remain focused. Despite the reasons being given by the employer at the time of the layoff, it is usually assumed (and true) that a company is going to cut those employees who are most expendable. Staying fired up and productive is the best way to make sure that you don't end up getting the boot. Also, it is inevitable that some key people in the organisation are going to either get laid off or they are going to seek other opportunities. Those that stay aggressive in their work are going to be in the best position to be recognised with promotions that become available. Just because your company is reorganising and may lay people off doesn't mean that the salaries it's paying now don't deserve 100 percent productivity on the part of its workforce. You just have to decide that you're going to proceed as if things are normal and give it your all as a matter of pride. What better time to stand out then when others are being slackers. They are just going to help to make you look good and provide job security for you during the layoffs.

To recommend an expert for this column or suggest a topic, contact Senior Writer Daintry Duffy at dduffy@cio.com.

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