Tuesday, June 27, 2006

How to make IT staff less angry - part one: Overview

This post contains secret IT workers' business. This could be dangerous to me for two reasons. First, it contains honesty which could be abused by dishonest and unscrupulous managers. Second, it is secret knowledge which the Cabal Of Disaffected and Exploited Information Technology workers (CODE-IT workers) don't like outsiders to know. Even now, the CODE-IT equivalent of Opus Dei assassin-monks may be on their way to silence me.

The reason I want to share the following information is it disturbs me greatly that things taken as common sense in so many circles seem to be so far out of the understanding of so many managers. It sometimes seems wise to keep this knowledge from managers because if they truly understood what motivates their IT workers they would exploit them even more. But that's too negative an outlook, even for me. Evil is evil and there's not much that can be done about truly evil managers. Dumb, on the other hand, can more often be remedied with appropriate education.

Here's hoping.

The short version is you make IT workers less angry by making their lives better. Many people don't need more information than that. But IT workers can be a quirky bunch and many employers truly do not understand IT well enough to work out what will improve the lot of the CODE-IT brigade. Here's the first bit of brutal honesty: in my experience, on average, IT workers complain more than other workers. The best possible spin I can put on this trend to whininess is that, at its best, IT is a dynamic environment that presents many challenges and the only constant is change. In a good way. When the folks in the CODE-IT trenches feel like they're being held back, when the corporate environment is resistant to change or flat out unable to change, that's when the surliness starts. Most IT workers will work extremely hard (even excessively hard) in the right environment but won't do well in a repressive environment.

Other times, IT people are just whiners. When I've worked in organisations that conduct staff satisfaction surveys, IT workers are invariably the least satisfied as a group. In many cases this has been well justified but the pattern is hard to miss: the CODE-IT legions are more likely to complain than anyone else. They are (generally) highly trained and a lot is expected of them so they in turn have high expectations of their employers.

All the clever people who study such things tend to tell you there are three aspects to job satisfaction. These can be sliced and diced in various ways and given different titles and descriptions but broadly, the three things people look for in a job are a good environment, interesting and/or fulfilling work, and good compensation. The purists/optimists will tell you each is equally important and you can't compensate for shortcomings in one area by boosting another. Here's the second bit of brutal honesty: this isn't true. The best jobs will rank highly in all three areas but it is quite easy to compensate for a shortfall in one area by boosting another.

Here's the thing to bear in mind: it's pretty much impossible to provide a job with good pay, good environment and interesting/rewarding work without sincerely wanting people to feel good about working for you. If there is some reason you can't or don't want to provide all three you need to be sincere about why boosting the other two makes it worthwhile. People will smell bullshit in this area a mile off - don't fool yourself into thinking you can fool all of the people all of the time. If you're telling staff it's worth working for less than average because you throw a really good Christmas party when that clearly isn't enough compensation, well, you're screwed. Saying it over and over won't make it true. It simply makes it more obviously what a lying, manipulative, scheming, exploitative bastard you are.

Another thing is that if you decide to (or are forced to) boost one or two aspects because of a lack in another area, you need to consider the sort of behaviour you are rewarding when you make this choice. The perception of what behaviour is apparently valued by a company may not always be overt but eventually your CODE-IT warriors are going to look up from their screens and evaluate what is happening around them. And I'd hate to break it to you, but the manager who is convinced their foolish underlings are completely unaware of their machinations is not only a prick, they're also delusional. Trust me, if you're a manipulative sociopath, your staff are probably more aware of it than you are.

The easiest aspect to boost (unless you are under significant budget or corporate restraints) is pay. Everyone likes more money. That's the good news. Here's the bad news: if money is the only thing keeping people working for you it also becomes the easiest way for other companies to steal your most valuable workers. It take a 5 second internet search to work out what other people are being paid; you can't rely ignorance of better opportunities keeping staff where you want them. Especially not CODE-IT staff.

But if money's out of the question, you could always consider improving the work environment. Improving the working environment can seem harder because it's a bit more ephemeral but even small changes can have a marked effect. Give your CODE-IT workers enough room to work. Most will need a significant amount of desk space to spread out their crap - it seems like crap to you but it's usually important to them. Cubicle farms are poison. And give your CODE-IT crew as much control as possible over their environment. Not letting them put up personal photos and fill their workspace with Star Wars memorabilia will offend them deeply. Enforced conformity is the close cousin of a disaffected workforce.

If you make improvements in the work environment you are sending an important message: we want you to be happy here. It's a mistake to think you can artificially make co-workers get on with each other but if the general atmosphere is positive, this has a tendency to rub off and make even surly CODE-IT workers less resentful of those around them. And leaving a positive environment is a big risk for most people. It's usually impossible to tell from a job interview if you'll like the new environment so improving your workers' existing environment is a valuable investment.

Then there is how much people actually like their work. Providing interesting/ challenging/ rewarding work is frequently undervalued by managers. Sure, there are bumps on logs whose aspirations reach as far as knowing they have a desk to come back to tomorrow and regular paychecks coming down the line but they are a much smaller minority than average in IT. "Knowledge worker" isn't simply a buzzword - these people use their brains as a matter of course and they want more challenges, not less. Unless you have complete losers working for you. If that's what you have and/or that's what you want stop reading. Employ the lowest common denominator and they'll never leave. And your workplace will never be better than a crap-hole. A third bit of brutal honesty (and I think I can see an albino face staring menacingly at me from the server rack as I type this) is that it's amazing how much less money a CODE-IT worker will accept if they really love their work.

Each of these three elements deserves much more detailed analysis and I will be doing just that over the coming days. But seriously, if you don't want your IT workers to be as angry as me, put some thought into how to improve all three of these elements from a CODE-IT perspective. It doesn't matter if management think they make the rules and everyone else should simply go along with it. If maintaining productive, high-quality CODE-IT workers is important to you, management has to deliver what workers want, not what management think workers deserve. And if this doesn't matter to you, you're going to get exactly what you deserve.

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