Another Victim of Hard Times: Morale

It behooves you to be sympathetic toward the emotional state of IT workers.
In the weeks and months following 9/11, I thought morale in the U.S. IT industry couldn't get any worse. Already reeling from the dot-com implosion, an incipient recession and a seemingly ceaseless wave of layoffs, American IT workers shared in the shock and horror of an unprecedented, deadly terrorist attack.

Now, nearly 18 months later, morale in the IT ranks may be even lower. This week we saw the beginning of a war that threatens to further delay the economic turnaround some analysts had been predicting (or perhaps wishing) would begin early this year. We also were given, courtesy of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the American Electronics Association, what amounts to an IT employment body count.

The numbers are grim, if not surprising. In the two years from January 2001 to last December, 560,000 high-tech workers were laid off from companies such as IBM, HP, Lucent and hundreds of other companies and organizations. Many of these workers still haven't found new jobs in IT, and many have given up trying, leaving the industry for good.

However, this column isn't about IT layoff victims. It's about the survivors who have weathered the storm so far but find themselves overworked, under-appreciated and still fearful they will be hurled into the gaping maw of unemployment during the worst economic downturn of their professional lives.

Or simply stated: They're depressed. A survey of more than 1,100 North American workers conducted last September by human resources consultant Towers Perrin and released in late January reveals that more than half of the respondents reported negative emotions about their jobs and more than one-third reported "intensely negative" emotions.

What gives? Here are workers who still have jobs while thousands of their less-fortunate peers have lost not only their jobs, but their careers, investments and homes. Are these survivors ungrateful?

No, they're just human. After all, the thrill of not getting laid off hardly is infinite. It soon is replaced by the reality of ever-increasing workloads combined with frozen or decreasing salaries. We're talking about the network manager who used to focus only on system maintenance and now also is responsible for security, the programmer who now must also conduct software testing (if anyone does that anymore, that is).

Indeed, the META Group reported this week that 71% of IT managers surveyed for the research firm's 2003 IT Staffing and Compensation Guide indicate that employee burnout has become a serious issue for them.

IT managers who are being pressured to increase return on investment while coping with fewer resources may be distinctly unsympathetic toward the emotional state of their workers. After all, times are tough and we're all under the gun these days. If they're unhappy, that's their problem.

Well, it's yours too. Because the issue isn't happiness, it's productivity. And if you're charged with improving ROI, you had better be getting the most out of your workers. That's not going to happen if they're miserable.

Further, the people you have left presumably were the best ones you had and therefore are, by definition, resources of value. (And if they weren't the best, then maybe you should have been laid off.) It behooves you and your company to take the steps necessary to improve morale among the current staff. The alternative is continued lower productivity or additional recruitment and training costs -- with no guaranteed payoff.

So what to do? I'm not suggesting you are responsible for creating a workplace utopia -- hey, it's not 1999 any more. Nonetheless, here are several tips on how to boost employee morale with an eye toward increasing ROI:

  • Don't stifle initiative. One of the best ways to kill an employee's enthusiasm is to consistently dismiss their proposals and suggestions. If a worker offers an idea -- even one that you think is untenable or just plain silly -- acknowledge the effort and contribution first. They probably are trying to help the company, just like you. After that, you can tell them why it's off-target.
  • Listen to them. Listening means more than waiting patiently (or impatiently) for them to stop talking so you can tell them what they said is wrong. They might be telling you something you don't know about, and it might be important. Another way to let them know you're listening is to ask, "What do YOU think?"
  • Give them the freedom to fail. I believe that one of reasons for Jupitermedia's success, oddly enough, is failure. What I mean by that is that the people who run this company aren't afraid to try new strategies or formulas. Many of our best ideas have come from lower and mid-level employees. So have some of our worst. The point is that you don't make someone walk the plank because of a noble failure. In fact, making people afraid to fail can itself guarantee failure. If someone thinks his or her job is on the line over the outcome of a project, they're going to push hard for that project -- even if it's a loser.
  • Make them feel like part of a team. This is especially challenging when many workers are off-site. But regular updates about a person or group's performance and how it fits into the big picture are invaluable in building cohesion and loyalty. No one (well, except maybe a programmer) wants to work in a vacuum.
  • Show interest in their career development. As noted above, workers are human beings, many of whom have professional goals and aspirations. It's always tempting when someone does a great job to want to keep them in that position. But that's unrealistic. If they're that good, they're not going to stay in the job forever. Better to keep them in the company. Again, it's not a people issue; it's an ROI issue.

Here's a link to the Towers Perrin survey. (If you can't read a PDF file, go here for a summary in HTML.

Chris Nerney is executive editor of the IT Management channel.

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