Upbeat tempo of an industry lift yet to reach IT

Signs of an industry upswing have emerged this year but analysts claim the upbeat tempo that typically accompanies economy recovery is yet to reach the IT shop. In fact, IT staff are decidedly downbeat.

Years of belt tightening, downsizing and diminishing resources have left their mark and the result is poor morale, widespread workplace stress and lingering job insecurity.

While I like to call these tough years the "post-hype readjustment phase" many in the industry can describe this period in one simple word - burnout.

IT managers claim that in a bid to contain costs and compete globally, staffing was stretched to unprecedented levels creating burnout for those lucky enough to have a job.

Career development, training and staff retention programs were sacrificed in the name of 'improved productivity', creating a dark undertow of job anxiety.

Typically, the impact of tough decisions is measured in terms of profit margins, rarely in human terms. However, two sobering reports surfaced last week showing that not everyone survived the downturn unmarked and some scars are yet to heal.

Sure 2004 has been one of new-found optimism and hope coupled with the belief that the worst is over, but Meta Group's IT staffing and compensation guide proves it has come at a cost - human cost.

Moreover, the upswing is patchy at best with nearly half of respondents still shedding staff and more than 70 percent of organizations admitting they do have a morale problem. And how do most companies identify problems? That's right, staff surveys are the dominant methodology used.

But this shouldn't be the only methodology used in tough times as more informal means of measuring discontent can be really effective - like simply asking staff what keeps them awake at night. I know I'm not talking rocket science here, but according to the survey communication is a real problem.

Companies surveyed said they are tackling poor morale with employee recognition events and regular job reviews, but there was scant mention of hiring additional staff or boosting salaries.

Bing! Figure it out: a balanced work and home-life can make all the difference as research shows an Australian IT manager is typically working a minimum 60-hour week. Burnout means reduced productivity, higher people turnover and poor performance; with budgets so tight it is a problem IT shops simply cannot afford.

Computerworld magazine in the US also did its annual "Best Places to Work in IT" survey of 17,000 IT professionals and found that low morale still lingers and there are pockets of IT staff feeling completely overwhelmed.

But the survey also identified the characteristics that make a great workplace: training opportunities, access to cutting-edge technology and most importantly, the kind of flexibility that allowed for a balanced life.

There were also innovative work practices that were certainly not costly but highly appreciated by staff. For example, one company had a policy of no meetings on Friday recognizing that the last thing anybody wants before the weekend is another time-sucking, black hole of a meeting.

Bumping up training budgets is always popular but the survey also found that in tough times it is good to focus on the basics - cool work, great relationships, fair pay and a reasonable belief that the future holds more of the same.

It sounds simple because it probably is. The dark days are over and it is time to move on. I would love to hear how you are adjusting to the new era, post-hype and post-downsizing, so tell me how you have kept burnout at bay.

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