Keeping IT staff happy

Every line of work has its own unique stresses and pains, and on bad days it may feel as though we have it worse than anyone else.

But if a recent job satisfaction survey of 200 IT administrators in the UK is anything to go by, the profession has real cause for concern.

It found that 73% of respondents consider their job to be ‘stressful’, with 63% saying they are more stressed at work than their friends or colleagues.

Nearly a fifth (18%) say they have suffered health-issue due to stress.

Just under half (50%) of respondents work six or more hours of overtime every week. And a third have missed social functions due to work, and another 30% have missed out on family time.

The result of all this is that 73% of IT admins are considering leaving their jobs. If nothing else, this last statistic should set alarm bells ringing, says Phil Bousfield, managing director of GFI Software, which commissioned the survey. Losing skilled IT staff can be especially damaging to an organisation, he says.

“If you lose a top salesman, you monthly figures might take a knock,” Bousfield says. “But if you lose a seasoned IT professional, your company might be paralysed for months.”

Bousfield believes the stress of working in IT derives from the fact that computers are integral to the business – so much so, in fact, they are often taken for granted.

“If you are the one that knows the intricacies of a system, there’s a huge pressure on you to always be available,” he says. “If there is an interruption to the service, it’s the IT staff that get it in
the neck.”

Are geeks different?

The key to keeping IT workers happy, Bousfield believes, is to find managers who engage with them on a technical level, but who can also articulate to senior executives the importance of their contribution.

Interestingly, the top source of stress among respondents was ‘management’ itself, with 35% of the vote.

This stands to reason. IT workers generally join the professions to work with computers, and have the duty of management thrust upon them.

Or, as one wag recently commented on techie-friendly link-sharing site “People in IT thought they would take care of computers, [but] they realise when they start to work that they have to take care of people.”

So how can managers make working in IT less psychologically troubling? How can they make sure their IT staff are motivated and happy?

In 2003, management consultant Paul Glen wrote a book called Leading Geeks, in which he argued that technically minded people do not respond to conventional management techniques.

“Geeks are different from other people,” Glen wrote. “Power is useless with geeks.” This outlook plays well with the cultural stereotypes of IT workers. The TV sitcom The IT Crowd portrayed a company’s IT workers was unusual, basement-dwelling creatures who barely integrated with the organisation around them.

But how useful is that point of view when it comes to managing and motivating IT staff? Not much, says Lily Mok, research vice president at analyst firm Gartner.

However, the third tenet of Glen’s book – “Geekwork is different from other work” – is more instructive. IT staff are not a fundamentally different breed of human being, but the nature of the work they do is different from other office activities.

For example, says Mok, working in IT requires constant training to keep up with the latest technologies. “The pace of technological change is rapid, so the types of skills a business needs changes far faster in IT than it does in accounts or HR,” she says.

But while the IT department may stick out among the back-office functions of a typical business, there are comparable professions. “In some ways, there are parallels with mature professions such as engineering,” says Mok.

Some of the lessons learned from that field, therefore, can therefore be applied. “The key to retaining such sharp, bright professionals is to give them interesting work,” she says.

Claire Schooley, a senior analyst at advisory group Forrester Research, agrees that engaging IT workers’ minds is an important part of motivating them and winning their loyalty.

But much has been made of this side of IT management, she says – it is the emotional side of motivation that is more often neglected in IT departments.

There are ways around this. At one company that Schooley worked with, an IT project manager devised his own way of appealing to staff’s emotional needs.

At the end of each project, staff gather together for a ticker tape parade, complete with streamers made out of the project documentation that is no longer needed. “Celebration is important; recognising the effort people put in and rewarding them provides a powerful emotional signal,” Schooley says.

Silicon Valley management

If a manager really wants to know what motivates IT workers, there is one obvious option: ask them.

Web giant Google is renowned for its ability to attract and motivate technically minded talent. The lavish perks it extends to its 50,000-strong workforce include free food, allotted time to work on pet projects, and the promise that if an employee dies, their spouse will receive half their salary for 10 years.

But even the Googleplex has to resort to more conventional motivation methods once in a while.

In 2009, the rise of social networking giant Facebook offered Silicon Valley’s best brains an exciting new challenge, so then- Google CEO Eric Schmidt decided that a pay rise was in order to keep the company’s workforce loyal.

But what kind of pay rise would keep Google’s staff loyal? To find out, the People Operations or ‘Pops’ team (Google-speak for HR) sent out a survey to employees, asking them how much they would value various pay options.

As it transpired, staff overwhelmingly preferred a bump to their basic pay to a one-off bonus, as it provided them with long-term certainty.

Contrast that approach with that of another Silicon Valley web giant, Yahoo!, which recently banned home working.

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side,” HR director Jackie Rese, wrote in a memo that was leaked to technology news blog AllThingsD. “That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.”

It was a PR gaffe for a company that is trying to reinvent itself for the mobile era. But, perhaps even more damagingly, it implied that workers will not be judged by their performance but by their presence.

According to Forrester’s Schooley, this is at odds with a working culture that arguably started in the IT and digital sector but has since come to define the younger generation.

“Suddenly firms are seeing far more people come into their organisation that are very performance based,” says Schooley.

“They like to know what outcomes are expected by a given date, but expect to be given the autonomy to decide how they reach goal.”

Yahoo! is going against the grain. In fact, flexible working is increasingly common as technologies such as video conferencing become widespread.

This presents its own challenges, says Gartner’s Mok. “Managing in these virtual environments can be tough,” she explains. “You lose some of the intimacy of face-to-face interactions.”

She argues that the growing use of remote working requires managers to be better organised and more communicative.

“What can seem like a more casual management relationship actually needs a lot of planning,” Mok says. “You need to define processes on how tasks are assigned and carried out, you might need explicit documentation, and you certainly need to schedule in frequent calls and get- togethers to establish a team ethic.”

That, paradoxically, may also prove to be the key to managing and motivating IT workers – extremely well defined and communicated objectives, with little or no prescription about how employees can achieve them.

See also: Flexible working key for 80% of tech employees

Henry Catchpole

Henry Catchpole runs Inform Direct, a company records management software company which simplifies the process of dealing with Companies House. The business was set up in 2013.

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