Best 100: Round-the-clock IT

When Ron DeCanio joined FedEx Services' IT staff right out of college six years ago, he knew it wasn't going to be a 9-to-5 job. "The thought of working weekends just sickened me," says the 27-year-old senior program analyst, who's based in Orlando.

But the pain of a Saturday morning wake-up call dulled a bit when he arrived at the office to find several IT managers flipping pancakes for the team in one of the conference rooms. "Managers know it's tough working weekends, and they show their support by coming in and cooking breakfast," DeCanio says.

There are other perks for FedEx's 6,000 IT employees, 85 percent to 90 percent of whom work occasional nights or weekends: ping-pong and foosball tables to help them decompress in the wee hours, extra days off during the week, high-speed Internet connections at home, and recognition and monetary awards "We're not extravagant -- but these things indicate we see what they do, appreciate it and (the time) they have to invest," says Dottie Berry, vice president of IT at FedEx Corp. in Memphis, ranked 30th on this year's Best Places list.

As globalization, speed to market and 24-hour help desks and data centers have grown more common, round-the-clock IT departments have become a business norm. FedEx and other companies adequately staff their departments for these multiple shifts, but inevitably there are situations when employees are thrust into overdrive.

"There is nothing thrilling about working 24/7," says Diane Morello, an analyst at Gartner Inc. "The recognition goes a long way to keep people engaged and willing to do it."

IT and human resources executives are learning that it doesn't always take monetary rewards to recognize a job well done. FedEx and Marriott International Inc. (No. 24) have conducted studies on what motivates IT employees, and they found that monetary compensation ranks third behind making a difference in the company and being exposed to new technology.

"When (our IT employees) walk out of the door every day, they want to be able to answer, 'Did I do something that was valuable to Marriott today?' " says George Hall, senior vice president of information resources human resources.

After a recent platform migration for the Marriott.com Web site -- a job that required extensive night and weekend work -- Marriott President Bill Shaw and several vice presidents and directors attended a reception for the IT staff to convey their appreciation. "That was very cool," says Tommie Adams, who has been a quality assurance analyst at Washington-based Marriott for 15 years. "Just to be recognized is important." Team members also received coupons for dinner for two at any Marriott property and complimentary weekend meals and were honored at pep rallies led by IT managers.

When an occasional request to work extra hours turns into a regular event, employees prefer cash awards and compensatory time off over recognition, says Gartner's Morello.

At No. 12-ranked SAS Institute Inc., the on-call system pays employees at all levels one flat rate for carrying a pager for emergencies. They must respond to calls within 15 minutes and, when necessary, arrive at the office within an hour -- day or night. "Whether they have two years' or 22 years' experience, their time is equally valuable," says Jeff Chambers, vice president of human resources, referring to the fee.

Employees are most likely to be asked to take on-call duty when Cary, N.C.-based SAS does its major systems upgrades each month. But the on-call procedure can be activated by unexpected situations -- like a virus that affected operations in April.

At San Antonio-based insurance company USAA (No. 51), employees who work nontraditional hours and "go the extra mile" receive spot bonuses ranging from $100 to $5,000. In 2003, more than 800 spot bonuses were awarded, totaling $980,000 in the IT organization alone.

Commitment from the top down

Many companies say the commitment to employee recognition comes from a deep-rooted culture created by company founders. At Marriott, founder J. Willard Marriott coined the mantra, "Take care of our associates, and our associates will take care of our guests, and our guests will return."

Each company also stresses the importance of having strong leaders who are fully engaged in big projects that require night and weekend work.

"We don't ask them to do anything we wouldn't do ourselves," explains FedEx's Berry. When facing a late-night project, IT managers "don't just delegate to employees and then come in at 8 o'clock in the morning looking all buff."

Perhaps most important, IT managers want nonstandard hours to remain the exception rather than the rule. A balanced work/home life continues to be their goal.

"Excellent employees are measured by the balance they have in their lives. If you've got vacation, we expect you to take it," Berry says. "We believe firmly that you come back refreshed and a better employee."

Stacy Collett is a freelance writer in Chicago. Contact her at stcollett@aol.com.

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