Taking IT for Granted

Don't bet that employees are happy just having a job.

Are you unhappy? Depressed? Considering drastic steps to change your situation? Im not talking about your personal life; Im talking about how you feel about your job in IT. If you answered yes to any of the questions above, you are definitely not alone.

In fact, the recent 2004 IT Staffing and Compensation Guide: Human Capital Management Best Practices and Trends from Meta Group found that low employee morale among IT workers is a serious problem at the majority of companies surveyed.

Gee, do you really think so? Come on—isnt "happy IT worker" an oxymoron?

After all, just what does an IT worker have to be happy about these days? Outsourcing threats, hordes of unemployed co-workers, high productivity (that is, one person doing the work of four)?

But the people who should be really unhappy about this report are the CIOs and IT executives who have to deal with the low morale. As Meta Group astutely points out in its press release on the study, the problem of low morale can lead to long-range turnover, low productivity and lost company value. Meta Group also points out that many companies are again focusing on retention and programs to increase employee satisfaction.

Thats surprising to me. I often get the feeling there are a lot of executives who still think its 2002. They think that the ball is completely in their court and will stay there for the foreseeable future. With this attitude, they feel that IT employees are just happy to have a job and that the company doesnt have to worry too much about retention or having their employees poached by competitors.

Anyone who thinks this way is clearly not paying attention. Several recent studies have shown that IT spending is increasing and that bigger increases are expected in the future.

Even without this data, theres reason—good reason—that no one should expect things to stay as they are.

You may buy into silly punditry that says things like "IT doesnt matter," but one quick look into a modern company shows that IT is more important than ever—with increasing numbers of complex and vital systems that are more interconnected than ever before.

And when people expect IT to stay the same, they are ignoring a key history lesson: IT does change, it changes radically, and it often changes in ways that no one can predict. This was exactly the case with the PC revolution and the emergence of the World Wide Web.

So if youre betting that your company can survive with unhappy IT personnel, think again. The cost of replacing experienced IT personnel is high, and thats before you take into account the productivity and dollars lost until a new person works up to something approaching the competence of a lost employee. And remember: The workers you lose first will almost always be your best ones.

In the aforementioned press release, Meta Group recommends being proactive, taking steps to improve employee morale, boost retention and build on internal IT experience. These are important steps, but Im not sure if they are enough.

One thing that needs to be faced is that company loyalty is a thing of the past. Much more likely is that each IT employee has a long list of every slight, indignity and sacrifice that he or she has made or suffered for the company.

In that case, cold, hard realism is probably the best course. Identify your top IT workers, the ones whose loss youd feel the most, and show them that you really are investing in them and their department. This means taking care of required training, filling long-standing and obvious needs in the IT department and, of course, showing them the money.

These investments will be a drop in the bucket compared with what would be lost if these people left the company. When your IT folks see that the company is putting some money behind them and the work they do, they will start to feel more comfortable and less unhappy. (Happy might be pushing it.)

Or, you could roll the dice and bet that things will remain bad and that employees wont be offered better jobs. If the worst happens and all your employees leave, you may be left with all the work. But at least youll be really productive.

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at jim_rapoza@ziffdavis.com.

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