'Soft Stuff Need Not Be Hard to Give to IT Workers

My company interviews thousands of IT workers annually, collecting data about their salaries, bonuses and skills. But IT workers can be a talkative bunch. We can count on hearing a lot about what they like and dislike about their work, their employers and their peers. It's pretty straightforward, intriguing stuff.

After years as an observer and analyst, I'm constantly amazed at how oblivious employers are to what matters most to their employees and how resistant they can be to providing it. And with current labor-market conditions, they're putting themselves in grave danger by not paying closer attention to what really drives their workers' happiness.

For example, why don't employers treat their people more thoughtfully? Many companies have grown accustomed to acknowledging basic IT pay issues (that is, paying more), accommodating workstyle requirements (for example, offering flexible hours and workweeks) and providing lots of training. This may address some of what their employees need, but what employees want is too often ignored. Because we tend to work hardest for the latter, confusing the two can have dire consequences.

Employers should ask their workers what they want and get them more involved in how to deliver it, but many simply don't. Even if workers can't get a lot of what they want, they tell us that employers score points just by sincerely inquiring. In fact, the personal approach to management goes a long way toward pleasing IT workers, especially when handwritten notes arrive from the top executive thanking them for their efforts. This ranks among the most powerful of all rewards and motivators, as evidenced by the hundreds of workers who tell us they save these notes and dig them out periodically over the years for personal morale boosts.

Succeess with so-called "soft" incentives requires thoughtfulness and empathy.

While these are things we learn more often from our parents, they may also be developed with the help of mentors and coaches and through continuous management development programs. But as a culture, we don't do nearly enough encouragement. Consequently, my company's research indicates that workers change employers most often because of poor relationships with their managers or superiors. Interestingly, more than three quarters of the workers we survey fail to mention this in their exit interviews, and fewer than one in five employers have coaching and mentoring programs or formal policies that - in actual practice - encourage internal job mobility. Our research continually reinforces the direct connection of soft factors to IT worker motivation and happiness and it reveals the unwillingness of many employers to provide them consistently.

In addition to recognition and appreciation, IT workers need to feel a sense of belonging, most often satisfied by psychological ownership of an objective, a job or a team pursuit. Having someone, or something, to believe in, or who believes in you, also provides this. We hear how important a safe, supportive work environment is to stimulating fun, creativity and superior work output, and also how money spent on beautifying workspaces provides an enormous psychological lift that is palpable even to visitors.

Pizza and bowling parties. Rock-climbing and golf outings. An all-expenses-paid night on the town. Lots of communication. These will put some spring in the steps of your IT workers.

This shouldn't be so hard to deliver. But employers will offer a litany of excuses and brag about their generous salaries, cash bonuses and stock options.

They're missing the point, and soon they'll be missing their people.

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