Perks and priorities for IT staff members: Page 2

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At a Glance

Carlson Companies Inc.

The company: Carlson Companies Inc. has about 1,000 IT employees in the Minneapolis area. The $31 billion company specializes in corporate and consumer travel, hospitality, and marketing. Its brands include Radisson, TGIFridays, Thomas Cook, and Wagonlit Travel.

The problem: The company suffered from an extremely competitive IT marketplace--what some view as negative unemployment in the Minneapolis metropolitan area.

The solution: Carlson adopted new strategies to attract and retain its staff: focus on retention; institute alternative work schedules; build a technology center with separate cafeteria and workout facilities catering to the long hours of an IT employee; offer a more casual dress policy than that allowed in other buildings on the corporate campus; provide employee-referral bonuses with retention incentives; give workgroups or teams budgets for fun--at least twice a year cover the cost of a golf outing, fancy dinner, boat ride, or other activity. The company is also considering flexible benefits that allow employees to choose their benefits based on a predetermined budget for each individual. If the employee's spouse already has benefits, then the employee could use these budgeted dollars for additional vacation time, optional insurance, or other benefits.
On the mainstream corporate side, IT workers might not get free gourmet lunches every day, but food often plays a role in keeping IT employees happy. Having food on-site offers the basic benefit of convenience, especially for companies like Google that are off the beaten path, but it also fosters employee morale and camaraderie.

If you're an IT worker at Carlson Companies Inc., for example, you can grab a quick breakfast or lunch at the Mega-Byte Cafeteria in the company's tech center. Separate dining and workout facilities (open 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. in order to accommodate longer IT schedules) are only a few of the benefits available to the 700 IT employees in the two-year-old building that houses Carlson's central infrastructure group. Dress is more casual in this building than in others on the Minneapolis-based corporate campus.

Pricey and priceless strategies

Dave Zitur, CIO and vice president of finance for Carlson Leisure Group and interim CIO for Carlson Companies, says the company has concentrated on retention for the last five years. The approach is multipronged, he says. A variety of career paths and leadership training are important parts of the equation, as are alternative work schedules--from four-day weeks (either 32 hours per or four ten-hour days) to working from home.

The company has IT forums--basically semi-annual meetings where IT employees from Carlson's five operating divisions get together to hear about new initiatives, activities in different groups, and current business. At one recent forum, the division CIOs and CTOs cooked and served barbecue for meeting attendees. Carlson's recognition awards, called the WOW program in the tech center, offer monthly winners everything from movie tickets to airline passes. Winners also receive pins, which they can display in their offices. The pins are about the size of a tie tack and are either bronze, silver, gold, or diamond stars.

Deep in the trenches, workgroups have budgets for fun. "We try to make sure employees have the time and money to do something fun at least once or twice a year at the group level," Zitur says. These activities include group bowling, boat trips on Lake Minnetonka, golf outings, and, of course, meals out.

While he has not heard of any employees asking to bring their dogs to work and take time out to walk them, Zitur says that is not out of the question at Carlson. "If it works out between the employee and his manager, then it's OK," he says.

CIO Dave Zitur added "fun" to Carlson Leisure Group's workgroup budgets.

Like Google's strategies, Carlson's also appear to be working. Turnover among the 1,000 IT employees in the Minneapolis area has hovered around 12% for the last few years, several percentage points below the national average calculated by IDC.

And who better to recruit new IT employees than happy Carlson IT folks. The travel, leisure, and marketing company's bonus referral program pays $2,000 up-front if a recommended candidate is hired. For the next four years, workers receive $1,000 each year on the referred employee's anniversary date. It's better than paying a headhunter, notes Zitur.

For Karen Bruns, director, IT, in the office of the CIO, the retention strategies have been a success. Bruns joined Carlson five and a half years ago as an IT project leader in the marketing division. Bruns is the recipient of several WOW awards and sports her pins on an 8"x10" bulletin board in her office. For Bruns, the number one retention program is alternative work hours. "I usually don't come in until 9 a.m. unless there's a meeting," she says. Bruns is also a fan of the corporate eating facilities, noting she eats lunch at one of them every day.

Training, recognition, and rewards

Like Carlson, United HealthGroup, the parent organization of managed care company United Healthcare, relies heavily on training and recognition rewards to keep its 3,000-person IT department happy, according to CIO and senior vice president Paul LeFort.

The Minneapolis-based company has a learning institute that delivers between 60,000 and 70,000 hours of professional and leadership training. That's about 20 hours of education each IT employee per year. United HealthGroup also offers IT workers management and technology training through distance-based learning. Through a video network, select individuals can earn their masters degrees from the likes of Stanford University. There are technical courses, such as Java, C++, and other programming languages; professional development courses, such as project management, giving presentations, and managing people; and leadership training through the Center for Creative Leadership.

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