Staff morale high on IT wishlist

Staff morale can be a tricky thing. Now times are hard, layoffs relatively prevalent and work is sometimes shared among fewer people, even small budget-balancing efforts -- such as cutting perks like staff parties -- can affect morale.

Staff morale can be a tricky thing. Now that times are hard, layoffs relatively prevalent and work is sometimes shared among fewer people, even small budget-balancing efforts -- such as cutting perks like staff parties -- can affect morale, let alone the allocation of wage rises that fail to keep pace with prices.

One IT manager at an Auckland software company with 17 years' experience told me last week that he was resigning from his job -- with no position to go to -- because it was “not a happy place”.

He blamed the company culture, citing a lack of training, overwork and an employer that did not listen or communicate. Staff were not told of the company standards they were expected to follow and customers were not trained to use the software they had bought from the company, so the IT manager had to deal with the most basic inquiries. Despite doing the work of two people in a 60-hour-plus week, he said the company also failed to respond to pleas for support.

What should companies do to improve matters? “Undo everything they have done."

Fortunately, other companies take a different approach.

Gavin Mitchell, chief executive of utility software firm Kinetiq, says morale is an HR rather than an economic issue. It is tied to the performance of the manager, rather than the state of the economy.

Mitchell says keeping staff busy is important, so if there are fewer projects for them to do, Kinetiq staff get put on more product development or training.

Communication is vital, he says, with staff knowing where they're going and what's expected of them. Rewards and recognition targets must be realistic and in line with your objectives. An interest in someone’s personal life shows you care, but this must be handled sensitively. Honesty, building up trust and encouraging openness in discussing issues is important. Managers also need to know when to use the whip or offer a carrot.

“If you treat staff well, they will [stay]. Loyalty is part of the leadership challenge,” Mitchell says.

Auckland University of Technology IT manager Calum MacLeod says his organisation is luckier than others. While it pays less, morale is kept high and staff turnover low because staff have more time to “fiddle” with new technologies and much emphasis is placed on training and personal development. Outside activities such as go-karting and mid-winter Christmas dinners are bonuses.

MacLeod says it is important to follow the same direction as the rest of the IT industry, as this in turn helps staff plan their career needs. A different direction would bring resistance.

Honesty is essential for credibility, as is giving staff the resources to do their jobs -- otherwise they get “irate”, he says.

Communication counts and involves listening, not just pushing a line. IT managers must also “keep their ear to the ground” to what people are saying.

People should also be recognised as individuals and responded to as individuals, be it career development, work issues or even a personal crisis. “Sometimes they just want to unload about something going on at home,” MacLeod says.

Sky City IS general manager Damian Swaffield says to keep morale high staff contributions must be recognised through salary, performance appraisals and profit shares. Small rewards can also be given, in the casino's case like a night in the hotel, a meal at a restaurant, free movie passes or letting people go home early.

“At the end of the day, it’s about demonstrating respect, treating people as working with you not for you, listening and having an open door policy -- being approachable,” he says.

Firms should have structured development strategies and managers need to set clear objectives, outcomes and job descriptions. “You cannot achieve anything unless the people are right behind you. Unless they are motivated, you are stuffed,” Swaffield says.

Greenwood is Computerworld's human resources reporter. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters

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