IT Morale Lifting Out of 'All-Time Low'

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Despite a recent survey that shows morale is at an ''all-time low'' in IT organizations, some industry experts say spirits are slowly lifting as the economy improves and companies begin to address the needs of their IT workers.

See sidebar: Steps to Improving Morale.

Released in June, an annual Meta Group survey of more than 650 companies showed that more than 72 percent report low IT employee morale is a serious issue in their organization.

''I just think everyone is burnt out and tired,'' says Maria Schafer, a senior program director and author of META Groups 2004 IT Staffing and Compensation Guide. META Group, headquartered in Stamford, Conn., is an international IT research, advisory and strategic consulting firm. The survey has been conducted for the last eight years, but respondents were asked about IT morale only in the last two years because of increased concern by employers and interest by the media.

''I think what happened was that there was a huge contraction after a huge expansion that I call dot.com mania,'' says Schafer, who maintains low morale is spread ''across the board'', rather than in certain IT disciplines.

The problem, she says, is that IT workers are being asked to produce at the same level as before their staffs shrunk from layoffs.

''The day has really been lengthened for IT employees and they already had a long day,'' says Schafer. ''IT is the kind of job where you're asked to put in weekends or work late nights. Before people were working 45- to 50-hour weeks, now they're working 55- to 60-hour weeks.''

Industry layoffs and downsizing are not unique to the IT industry, but the negative effects can be the same, contends Aneil Mishra, associate professor of management at Wake Forest University's Babcock Graduate School of Management.

''It's really a knee-jerk reaction to get rid of people (when business declines or the economy sags), but often that is the wrong thing to do,'' Mishra said. ''When companies treat their laid-off employees terribly, with no severance etc., the survivors say, 'That could be me in a few years.' People who remain, their morale is shattered and they're not going to be as creative.

''The IT industry is even more explicit in their mistakes because employees are being asked to train employees in China or India. And worse, they know those people may replace them. It's just insane,'' Mishra adds.

Also, analysts say company layoffs are often poorly planned and executives get rid of the wrong people or don't think about what direction they're headed in the future.

''So you have the same old people doing the same old work as before, but now they're being asked to do more work or work they weren't trained to do,'' Mishra says. Companies can downsize while remaining competitive and not destroying morale, but it takes great foresight and systematic thinking, he notes.

But at least one analyst says while IT employees are stretched because companies are hiring at a slower pace, morale is not as bad as it was a few years ago.

''Certainly, the industry went through a lot of layoffs after a really high-flying time and the contrast now is stark. Recovery has been slow,'' says Gordon Haff, a senior analyst with Illuminata, a technology advisory firm based in Nashua, N.H. Haff says he is not seeing a particularly poor outlook in the field now. ''People have been talking about IT burnout and overwork for as long as there's been IT.''

Dan Walsh, CEO of Darwin Partners, a Boston-based business and IT consulting firm, notes that certain areas of IT, such as Web designers and programmers, most likely have lower morale today because they're afraid their jobs will be offshored. At the same time, he says overall moral among IT employees is better now than it was four years ago.

''There are some skill sets that... are more susceptible to outsourcing,'' Walsh says. ''Does it cause anxiety? Absolutely.''

Likewise, while some IT workers were disillusioned about the industry at the turn of the century, Larry Fiorino, CEO of the Baltimore-based IT consulting firm G.1440, has found them to be ''cautiously optimistic'' now.

''In 1998, everyone felt like they'd be millionaires. They came to work in shorts and t-shirts with holes and wanted to go home early,'' he says, adding that the change in attitudes has been an improvement from those days. ''Now people come in and do the work and understand there's a lot of opportunity, but they're not going to get rich tomorrow.''

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