You can't always guess what they want

A fast-growing part of Ken Erdner's IT group was running out of office space, so he moved them into a new area separate from the rest of the department. But Erdner failed to ask the employees what they thought, and that proved to be a mistake. He thought it was going to be a comfortable and productive space; the group felt isolated and resentful.

Luckily, Erdner, vice president of technology and information services at Old Dominion Freight Line communicated well and often with his group, and they made their feelings known.

But his experience points to an IT reality: managers may think they know what IT workers want, but often they don't. And there's a corollary: if you don't give IT workers what they want, the consequences can be low productivity and high turnover. "There is no acceptable level of turnover if you're losing your best people," says Diane Morello, an analyst at Gartner.

Turnover, not a big problem for the past several years, may be making a comeback as competition for talent heats up. Baby boomers are starting to retire. IT groups are beginning to hire again. Universities are graduating fewer computer science majors, and offshore opportunities are enabling more foreign-born workers -- who used to buck up the IT workforce -- to stay in their home countries. As IT workers once again begin to consider greener pastures, it's more important than ever for managers to know what their employees really want.

Get beyond money

The first step towards finding out is not to assume you already know. For example, if you think workers really want more money, think again. "I believe that IT too quickly assumes that money is always the No. 1 driver," says Gwen Walsh, a former CIO and now a senior consultant at Ouellette & Associates. "Money is important, but not necessarily the most important motivator."

In fact, even a bonus can sometimes seem to do more harm than good, as any manager who has ever given a smaller-than-expected one can tell you. "Compensation is more a dissatisfier than a satisfier," says Brian LeClaire, vice president and chief technology officer at health benefits company Humana Inc. Many of the things IT workers actually want are fairly universal desires. For example, they want their jobs to mean something.

"When they leave at the end of the day, [IT workers want to know], 'Have I made a valuable contribution to the business? Am I involved with projects helping to move the business forward?'," says George Hall, senior vice president for IT human resources at Marriott. "Being fulfilled in the role is still the primary driver."

And, like other people, IT workers want recognition, says Christine Bullen, a senior lecturer in information management at Stevens Institute of Technology. "It sounds simplistic, but there's a need to celebrate successes when people work hard," she says.

Walsh suggests, "Give a party, provide a special trip [to express] sincere recognition for a job well done."

Tanner Co, which makes and distributes employee recognition and performance awards, has a recognition program for its own IT employees that does just that. Awards range from a thank-you e-mail to a choice of gifts, including trips, which range in value from about $US50 up.

But IT workers also have wants particular to them. Ann Harten, senior vice president and CIO at Sirva, a relocation services provider, did an informal survey of her direct reports and found that they wanted the security of knowing they would not be outsourced, access to new technology and a work schedule that didn't include too many nights and weekends.

Harten's survey also showed that IT workers want to be appreciated by their business customers. "There's a desire to contribute value to the business and to be acknowledged for it," she says.

David Berg, senior vice president and CIO at O.C. Tanner, says he suspects that much of the dissatisfaction among IT workers comes from the apparent lack of appreciation from the business side. "The business must appreciate IT employees [and not] see IT as a bottleneck," he says.

It's part of a manager's role to see that IT's contributions are valued and to communicate that to the rank and file.

Another challenge is that different workers want different things. LeClaire divides IT employees into three broad categories, each of which needs to be engaged in its own way, he says. Some enjoy what they're doing -- which is typically focusing on technology -- and are motivated by the desire to continue as they are. Some are motivated by new and interesting challenges, such as innovative technologies and projects. Others look to a career path in management.

"You engage them not just with technical leadership on projects, but with managerial leadership, and eventually you grow them into managerial positions," says LeClaire.

Hank Zupnick, CIO at General Electric Commercial Finance Real Estate, says he's seen a "diversification of interest" among IT workers. "Some want to be more closely aligned to the business, and others want to remain technically focused," he says.

Based on the students she has taught, Bullen believes most IT workers want to advance their careers by moving into management rather than remaining in purely technical jobs. "CIOs have to create a career path up through business projects," she says.

Zupnick adds that over the past 10 or 12 years, he's seen a shift in what IT workers want. Before, 80 or 90 percent wanted to remain on the technical end, he says. Now only 30 or 40 percent do; more and more want to move into management.

Erdner has noticed other changes. IT people used to jump from job to job, he says, but now they look for strong companies that will support them over time. "I think IT employees in general are looking more long-term," he says.

Finding out

How do some IT managers know so much about what their employees want? The best way to learn is to ask them, and some companies go to considerable lengths to do that.

Marriott has several programs to keep on top of IT workers' needs. One is a formal survey that looks at variables such as compensation, leadership and the work environment; it has a 90 percent participation rate. And there are also "town hall" meetings, held at least twice a year, in which leaders talk about strategy, projects and future plans, and employees ask questions and provide feedback. The company also holds a number of "chats" each year in which 10 to 12 employees meet with the CIO and other top managers to talk about issues such as strategy, career development and technology. These employees pass along what they learn to their colleagues. The result of all these efforts is a turnover rate in the single digits and an average tenure of nine years, says Hall.

Zupnick says his IT employees meet twice a year with their supervisors to talk about what they've done and how they envision the future. There are also informal "skip-level" lunches twice a year in which one or two employees meet with a supervisor two levels above them to help the upper-level managers keep in touch.

Humana has an ongoing series of performance reviews in which IT employees discuss how well the company is meeting their needs. And through coaching, the company helps them plan and navigate their career paths.

Finding out what motivates employees is the first step toward good management, but everyone needs to remember that job satisfaction is a two-way street. As you attempt to meet workers' needs, they have to recognize their own responsibilities, Harten says. She tells her employees that their part of the bargain is clear: "You have a responsibility to increase your value and worth in the organization."

No satisfaction

What happens when employees want something -- compensation, benefits, technology, security -- that you just can't give them? Here are some tips from IT leaders and consultants to help you manage the situation:

  • Articulate how you provide a culture and environment the employee won't find in many other companies.
  • Stress the career opportunities you provide. Talk about the projects employees get to work on, the people they work with and the opportunities available to them.
  • Money isn't everything, but be sure you're paying a competitive wage.
  • Try your best to fix the problem.

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