Perks and priorities for IT staff members

Who needs a BMW when you can take your dog to work?
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Free BMWs and Porsches, massage therapists who come to your desk, gourmet lunches prepared by an in-house chef, ski trips to Lake Tahoe. Join a dot-com or technology company and at least one of these perks is likely to come your way. These companies are grabbing headlines left and right with the flashy, seemingly expensive perks they use to recruit and retain employees.

Technologies Wanted

While the dot-coms and technology firms are getting the press, mainstream companies are not standing on the sidelines. As competition for IT staff has reached record levels, retention strategies have become critical to the success of an IT department. In 1999 alone, 722,158 requisitions for IT workers were created, 60% of which were in non IT-industry companies, according to International Data Corp., a research analyst firm in Framingham, Mass. In 2002, there will be 846,000 requisitions overall. As retention has increased in importance, so have the number of ways to keep employees happy.

If you work in the IT department at an insurance company's corporate headquarters, you probably will not be able to wear your well-worn college T-shirts to work or have your dog hang out in your cubicle. However, you probably will get to dress casually, and you might even earn extra days off, get fancy dinners out with a date, receive $6,000 employee referral bonusesand possibly even win trips to Hawaii and Disneyland.

Keys to retaining IT employees

Good compensation packages are always key, but fun and nonmonetary items are becoming increasingly important to valuable IT staff.

Which is most important? It depends on your workforce. A younger workforce will want more social events and compensation packages with higher risk and reward factors. A 30- to 40-year-old workforce is more likely to be concerned with job security and perks such as childcare and a training institute.

Good leadership. The biggest key to retention is the quality of your management and leadership, says Paul LeFort, CIO and senior vice president of United HealthGroup in Minneapolis. Of his 3,000-person IT staff, about 10% are in leadership roles. Employees want good mentors and leaders they can learn from, he notes.

Lifestyle issues. Offer casual dress. Consider childcare. Provide alternate work schedules and locations. For example, offer three- and four-day work weeks and telecommuting.

Education and training. Technologies change quickly and so do the skillsets required to keep up with these changes. "Companies need to spend a lot of time making sure that their employees are getting a lot of training and are being used in a way that their current skillsets will not become outmoded," says Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va.

Corporate mission. Offer stock options in the company to encourage corporate buy-in.

Executive support. Make sure corporate leaders--CEOs, CFOs, and other nontechnical managers--are committed to and support IT.

Recognition. Provide recognition for being creative and doing a good job. "If a boss or organization is really acknowledging creativity, employees won't leave that place--even if the place down the street pays $40,000 more," says Dick Dooley of the Dooley Group Inc. in Riverwoods, Ill.
Keeping IT employees happy does not have to break the department budget. While trips across the country might cost a bundle, IT managers are also using a number of inexpensive benefits to retain employees. Among these are casual dress (the further your office is from the company's CEO, the more casual you will likely be allowed to dress), alternative work schedules, book clubs, and recognition rewards.

"Retention always was important, but now it cannot be ignored," says Al Borenstine, president of Synergistics Associates in Chicago. Borenstine, who recruits CIOs, says retention is now among the top five functions of an IT executive's job.

It's time to get imaginative

Retention used to be a twofold task, notes Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va. In the past, IT managers had to make sure their compensation packages (salary, bonuses, and stock options) were competitive and try to create some sense of corporate spirit within the department. Now, says Miller, HR and IT executives also must focus on employee lifestyle issues and education and training--and be creative at it all.

As an IT manager in a corporate environment, look at what you're competing with. One IT manager, who asked that she and her company remain anonymous, says her department occasionally awards Atlanta Braves tickets to recognize hardworking individuals. A bonus during busy times is a goody basket consisting of Surge cola, candy, and stress balls, along with a certificate for a "mental day off."

The manager, whose company is based in the South, recently sent her employees "applause" cards--digital pictures of the team with adjectives each employee's team members had used to describe the individual. Free key chains and pizza lunches are routine. IT folks also enjoy the corporate workout facilities, cafi, store, ATM, and soon-to-arrive dry cleaner and video store. While most of these are provided for employee convenience, the workout facilities are subsidized by the company and employees pay a nominal monthly fee.

Appreciation is big at her company, says the manager. Her boss even bought the book 1001 Ways to Reward Employees, by Bob Nelson and Kenneth H. Blanchard, for each of his managers.

Google Inc., a search engine company located in Mountain View, Calif. (right in the heart of Silicon Valley), has an in-house chef. He provides free gourmet lunches and dinners, and was once a personal chef and caterer to the likes of the Grateful Dead. Google also has two massage therapists (part-time contract employees) who will come to your desk and work out the kinks you get in your shoulders when you've been working at your computer for too long. Employees can bring their dogs to work. The entire company took a ski trip to Lake Tahoe in February 2000.

The perks appear to be working. Cindy McCaffrey, director of corporate communications at Google, says the company has had zero turnover since its inception in September 1998. That's far below the national average of between 15% and 16%, as calculated by IDC.

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