The New Successful Workforce

BOSTON (06/05/2000) - TIf you're going to style your business for the Internet, you're going to need IT talent. And right now, demand outstrips the supply of good technologists by far, making it tougher than ever to retain staff.

That means information technology managers must focus on cultivating top performers and motivating them into staying onboard rather than chasing after bigger paychecks elsewhere. While there are numerous tactics that companies can deploy to keep their best and brightest - from extending inflated counteroffers to chaining them to their workstations - the most effective strategy is keeping employees from wanting to jump ship in the first place.

By all accounts, compensation remains the key to opening the door to a job candidate's commitment. IT professionals know what they're worth and aren't afraid to demand competitive pay.

But keeping the people you recruit from going back out that door involves much more than cold, hard cash. At the companies that qualify as Computerworld's Best Places to Work in IT, consensus-building management styles, commitment to professional training and flexible working arrangements help keep IT staff content and turnover low.

Squeaky Wheels Get the Grease

Bill Meadors wants to learn Spanish. In the next few weeks, Meadors, lead systems analyst at TECO Energy Inc., a public gas and electricity utility in Tampa, Florida, will start a beginning Spanish course at a local community college.

Currently, Meadors doesn't need to speak Spanish at TECO. But he says he's looking ahead to possibly working with TECO's Guatemalan subsidiary, or moving into a business development role that would involve working with Hispanic commercial accounts.

"We don't have to have just technology training," says Meadors. "As long as the company can see the benefit for the business, it's OK. Who's to say two to three years from now I won't be in IT, but in some other part of the business?"

Joseph Wiley, TECO Energy's CIO, says offering training that takes into account the company's needs inside IT - and the employee's long-term plans outside IT - involves risk: The trained employees may update their résumés and bolt.

But Wiley says he believes these types of expanded training opportunities create more motivated employees. He says it helps build company loyalty, even if the employee moves to another department later in his career.

"If someone comes to work in an IT function, then decides they want to be in marketing or in the power plant, there is a semiannual process review and those goals get factored into their work objective," explains Wiley. "We try to focus on work and personal objectives."

Meadors, a 17-year TECO veteran, says that allowing workers to pursue a combination of training courses makes a compelling case for staying put.

Like many career-minded IT professionals, Meadors says he wants to strengthen "hard" technology skills, like programming techniques. He says he also wants to develop soft skills, like management techniques or knowledge of business functions.

"It's more than money that makes a place a good place to work," Meadors says.

"[TECO] wants someone with broader business experience, not just someone who can write good Cobol or C++ code. A lot of projects require good code writing, but they also require good cost justification, a well-written proposal and some understanding of the business process."

In the past year, and on the company's dime, Meadors finished a course in the Internet programming language HTML. He also takes yoga classes during his lunch hour to reduce stress, he says. In September, he plans to take a programming course on sales and automation prior to starting a project along those lines for TECO.

Consensus Building

Angie Brown, a systems engineer for the past two years at home improvement retailer The Home Depot Inc. in Atlanta, says that in addition to training, assignment choice plays a key role in her job satisfaction. Brown says managers "influence but do not control people" and seek input from employees while developing IT projects.

"We have a lot of bright people, and if they can be engaged in our issues and challenges, we can come up with better solutions," says Ron Griffin, CIO at The Home Depot. "We try to involve our [employees] in all aspects of the biz, and not just treat them as technonerds."

Griffin says that by involving the members of his staff in the decision process, they get more involved in finding the best solution. The growing retail chain, which has more than 950 stores, boasts a dramatically low 3.5% turnover rate. Griffin says that's due to the $9,000 spent annually on training per employee, and on the consensus-building style that he cultivates from the top down in IT.

Technology managers at Allstate Corp. in Northbrook, Illinois, also give IT employees a say in determining which projects they will take on next.

Through an internal "All-of-us-at-Allstate" intranet site, staff members can apply for new assignments as they become available. Each posting includes the duration, scope and skills required for the project. A manager then determines if that employee has the right skills for the project.

"We encourage our employees to take ownership of their own careers and take a proactive role in determining what they want to do," says Mike Escobar, assistant vice president of enterprise and shared services systems and a 25-year Allstate veteran. "People looking for stability might go to corporate systems, financial and the HR systems area . . . but others can move on every few months to something else."

In addition to letting employees choose work assignments, it's important to offer a full range of assignments as well. Escobar says the company's status as a traditional $27 billion brick-and-mortar insurance company cum dot-com helps lure Internet-savvy new talent and keep the incumbents onboard.

Last year, Allstate launched a wide-ranging initiative to sell its policies through traditional agents, as well as via direct call centers and over the Web. Officials say the company's IT project mix - from back-end legacy system maintenance to e-commerce development - offers a smorgasbord of opportunities to keep a diverse range of staff appetites satiated.

"There is an upper-level commitment to technology," says Escobar. Allstate.com is "our biggest-priority, No. 1 project with a No. 1 focus. It's an allure for people looking at what kind of projects they will do and who want to know that we're working on the newest technology."

Seeking Balance

Accommodating the needs of an employee's family life also creates more job satisfaction, say IT professionals. And it requires flexibility from management.

After five years at United Stationers Inc., Debbie Buchholz was ready for a change. Buchholz worked as a computer programmer and systems analyst at the Des Plaines, Illinois-based wholesaler of office supplies and equipment. Yet she wanted to start a family and spend less time in the office.

Like the heads of more and more IT departments, United Stationers CIO Ergin Uskup worked out a compromise with Buchholz to keep her on staff: work three days at home and two days in the office.

"We don't have dozens of people working from home in Illinois, but we're not a running a sweatshop either," Uskup says. "But we try to accommodate our staff, and we tend to tailor hours to the individual's needs. Most people don't go home at 5 o'clock, but we try to keep a balance and figure out ways to make it work. We realize people have lives."

The Home Depot's Griffin echoes those sentiments. "We say: Be there for the significant life experiences of your family. Balance your work schedule and deal with family issues as you need to," he says.

While Griffin doesn't allow his staff to telecommute, he staggers start times and tries to accommodate family events. For example, he might allow an employee to leave the office early to attend a child's play.

The Home Depot also works with Habitat for Humanity, which builds houses for low-income families. The Home Depot's IT shop has built a house for the nonprofit organization in each of the past nine years. The construction used to take eight weeks to complete. To make it easier for IT volunteers to participate, Griffin now schedules the annual house building during the workweek. "Many of them are already working 60 hours per week, and I'd hate for them to take more time away from their families," he says. "I want people to have balanced lives, and it's a great opportunity to work out of the regular setting with their team and other teams."

In Buchholz's case, flexible scheduling involved more than just philanthropy.

It kept her on staff at United Stationers.

"Otherwise, I would not have stayed," acknowledges Buchholz, now an MIS project manager at United Stationers and a mother of two. After managing a yearlong mainframe migration project, she received the promotion from programmer four years ago.

"I had to earn that," Buccholz says proudly. "I still had to prove that I could manage a project and a team and still work from home. It's been really nice to have this flextime, because I don't think I could work five days in the office.

My kids have not been in day care; they're with me, and that's important to me."

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