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How to Hold on to Your Most Valuable Asset

By Allen Bernard

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In the IT world, technology is king. It's always about the technology. The best software, hardware or latest, greatest infrastructure methodology takes center stage, every day, all day. But what about the people behind the technology? The people you rely on everyday to make all that technology run? What happens if they are not happy and running well -- returning a positive ROI, as it were?

There are no magazine awards singling out the "Best Employee of Year" for you to hire. There is no algorithm that defines a happy employee. No off-the-shelf implementation that ensures your employees are living up to their potential and your expectations. But, as the job market begins to heat up as is expected going into 2004 and beyond, it will become increasingly important to figure this out.

Signs of recovery are everywhere. Report after report is calling for increased IT spending in 2004 and IT jobs are already in high demand in some parts of the country. Temporary IT staffing firms report a healthy increase in demand of late and this is a good indication full-time hiring is not far behind, said Barry Asin, chief industry analyst at Staffing Industry Analysts.

So the big question is what do you do? How do you ensure your employees (at least the ones you want to keep) are happy, or, at the very least, content? The answer is pretty simple, probably won't cost you much either and is something we can all relate to. And while it may be obvious to some, at many firms this essential part of every worker's psyche is often overlooked: employee's need to feel valued.

Of course saying it here, and doing it there, where you sit, are two different things but it's not as difficult as it may at first sound.

Dollars & Sense

Now, money and benefits are a good thing and the reason why most of us actually show up for work in the first place. But the reason we do good work everyday is because we feel valued by the people that sign our paychecks, said Larry Fiorino, CEO of g.1440, a IT staffing, marketing and software development firm. This is not say fair compensation is passe, far from it, but the days of showing up and shutting up, as many of our fathers did, are over.

"If they leave for a few thousand dollars more, you know its not the money that did it," agreed Asin.

The unwritten employer/employee contract of the 1950's and 1960's is long gone. Employees no longer look to their employer as a source of life-long security and earnings. Instead, they see their employers as the current stop on a long personal and professional journey, said Steve Berchem, vice president of the American Staffing Association. This doesn't necessarily mean it's only a matter of time before everyone of your staff moves on to greener pastures, but it does mean the willingness to do so is ever present.

IT as a group are highly trained and well educated, curious people that think for themselves. To keep this type of person interested it is important to foster a culture of professional and personal development that encourages employees to do their best work, said Berchem.

"It is the intangible employment relationship," he said. "It's what goes beyond the paycheck. How one feels about the place one works. Employers need to acknowledge there is a workplace culture and there are ways to manage that culture and it's a mistake to just let it happen."

Listening is Key

The first step is to sit down with your staff and just listen to what they say about what they are doing, who they are working with, and what they would like to be doing. You may not be able to deliver any of what they want -- a Porsche and the president's parking space are probably out of the question -- but at least they know you are listening and that probably means you care, said Nick Burkholder, president of Staffing.org, a non-profit consultancy aimed at helping companies maximize employee performance.

"It gets down to really listening and not necessarily having fancy programs and such," he said. "It really pays to stop and understand what's important to a person."

Other things like offering flex-time so working mom's and dad's can be home for personal events like a kid's soccer game or a long weekend with the family is also highly valued by today's Gen-Xer's, which make up the bulk of IT staffers.

But, of perhaps even greater import in the IT world, is ongoing training, said Asin. If employees are given the opportunity to learn about, and tinker with the latest technology they will feel more empowered and hopefully do a better job. Technology is a fast moving industry filled with fast thinkers and if employees feel their professional development is wanting, they may look for opportunities elsewhere that offer this perk.

"People in this area know they've got to continue developing their skills to be successful," said Asin. "Folks realize that the old employment contract is pretty much dead. They're not expecting a career for life with one company but what keeps them around is the opportunity to learn and develop. And this is particularly true in the IT world."

Good management is also key. Managers that get along with everyone and are part of the "crew" are always good. But managers that actually know how to manage people and solve their work-related problems as opposed to just being everyone's friend or a particularly adept technologist, are better, said Staffing.org's Burkholder.

Good managers know how foster a culture of camaraderie where people are allowed to grow and work along side like-minded people. Placing two people in a room with vastly different cultural and social views will probably not lead to the best working atmosphere, so it is important to identify each individual's personality type and, wherever possible, team these people together.

Also, tell your people about what's going on, said g.1440's Fiorino. Keep them informed about the your organization's strategic direction and goals, and its current financial situation. The dark is good for growing mushrooms but not fostering good will among your staff.

Basically, everyone said the same thing: it pretty much boils down to corporate culture. The prevailing attitude of the company towards its employees. Enlightened companies that foster personal as well as professional development tend to fair better in the turn over game than those that don't. And while a fat paycheck and 'bennies' are nice, it's not the end of the road. Maintaining morale and fostering dedicated and happy employees in it for the long-haul, is equally important and with a little time, effort and attention, it can be done.