Tuesday, July 04, 2006

How to make IT staff less angry - Part Three: Positive Environmental Decisions

This is the third part in a series of posts on steps managers and employers of IT staff can take to improve the morale and, by extension, the performance of their workers. In response to some discourse in the comments for the last part I thought I'd start by clarifying: these posts aren't intended to be an empty whine (although that can be therapeutic) they are actually addressing real issues that ultimately hurt employers as much as employees. I did admit from the start that the Cabal Of Disaffected and Exploited Information Technology (CODE-IT) workers have a tendency to complain but when simple steps are available to keep good staff happy, why not take them?

Bad workplaces drive employees away while good workplaces attract and keep good staff. And any manager who thinks they don't have to look after their staff is living in denial. The best you can hope for is the death of 1000 cuts - your bad staff won't jump ship because they're afraid nobody else will employ them. Your good staff will be the first to wake up to the fact they deserve better. And with each person you lose your performance will go downhill until you reach some appalling plateau of hopelessness or collapse altogether.

I've worked in places where the management was perfectly happy to have barely above minimum performance because it made them feel like they were completely in control. They were largely right: most of the staff who stayed there more than a year or so were too hopeless to get a job anywhere else, so they were totally at the manager's mercy. If that's your goal as a manager, don't waste your time reading this - there's nothing here for you. Actually, if that's your company policy and your company is publicly traded, let me know your stock ticker symbol so I can short your stock (I'm learning trading tips from Howard's blog).

This post is the second half of my thoughts on work environment wherein I provide some straightforward suggestions on how to improve the environment for CODE-IT workers to everyone's benefit. This is a personal favourite of mine as it's possible to forget about how much money you do or don't have, it's possible to forget that there might not be any future in your job but you can't ignore what's going on around you. If you want to improve the well-being of your staff immediately and the performance of your company long term, then improve the working environment.

It's important to remember that the overall concept of work environment and facilities for IT workers goes beyond the physical environment. This includes their work "tools": PCs and/or mobile computing hardware, software, printers, scanners and any other gadgets that make their job possible or seem like fun. It's common for managers not to be sure how much to provide CODE-IT workers on the system/resources front. Here's the short answer: give them what they ask for. Where possible give them more. Before they ask for it.

IT system costs can spiral out of control quickly, particularly when a large IT department is involved - I'm not suggesting bankrupting a company by outfitting every desk with frivolous widgets. But don't be too quick to veto requests to beef up the machines used by your CODE-IT brigade. The difference in productivity that can be gained by boosting the quality of the hardware and software available can be phenomenal. And for god's sake, make your judgements on a case-by-case cost/benefit analysis - don't apply standard rules across the company. Even within an IT group, system requirements will vary wildly between individuals depending on their actual work. But is seems some managers need the obvious pointed out to them: the system needs of a CODE-IT worker are not the same as someone doing customer service or someone working in accounts. They aren't even close.

Underpowered machines have two disadvantages. First, they are slower in performing the tasks required of them (or in some cases I have experienced, completely incapable of performing the tasks) which has a direct impact on productivity. Each task takes longer so less tasks get done each day. QED. A second problem which can cause more problems long term is that each time a CODE-IT worker experiences an unnecessary delay because of underpowered systems they get that little bit more pissed off with their work. I'm complaining again.

So here's a tip for a quick easy win: give your CODE-IT workers two monitors. You might think I'm being flippant but there are a number of quite respectable studies that show a sharp improvement in productivity with multi-monitor setups. Monitors are getting cheaper every day and you don't even have to provide particularly flash ones (on the other hand, if you have the money - go to town). If you get in quick while this practice is still a relative novelty you can invest a few hundred dollars per head to get two 17" monitors on every desk and make your CODE-IT workers think you love them. We might have a tendency to complain but really we just want to feel loved.

There is a lot of argument around whether cubicles, open plan or individual offices are the best solution for housing staff but really there isn't an absolute answer. Different people prefer different things so talk to your staff to find out what the consensus is. And if you can't meet what people want, above all, be open about your decision. Explain the reasons for your decision and be prepared for some complaints but at least if you are honest you can hold your head up. Go back to part two in this series for an example of how to really piss off CODE-IT workers in this area. I've already said this in previous posts, but the one universal truth regarding seating for CODE-IT workers is GIVE US ENOUGH SPACE! The majority of IT workers require much more space than the average office worker to perform effectively. Skimp on this at your peril.

Another magical environment booster is donuts. I won't engage in a debate on the health issues involved in allowing your CODE-IT hordes to gorge on junk food. If this sort of think (junk food abuse) upsets you, imagine I'm using donuts as a metaphor. But I'm not - I mean literally provide fresh donuts every morning. One workplace I know did this and had the earliest rising CODE-IT crew I have ever met. Early arrival in and of itself is not a guarantee of good work but it didn't hurt that everyone started the day with a positive attitude.

When the inevitable happened and a bean counter cut the donuts off because it was "frivolous", the direct result was morale, early arrivals and overall performance took a nosedive. Not so much from lack of donuts, everyone could afford $2 for a donut if they wanted one but more because everyone got the unmistakeable message: this entire department does not deserve a small luxury. At the same time the CEO is in news for receiving multi-million dollar bonuses.

Don't underestimate the power of little things in the work environment. This counts for both good and bad things but I'm trying to be more positive today. Some extremely good CODE-IT workers will only work in places that give them the freedom to wear casual clothes ("I could earn twice as much somewhere else, but they'd probably make me wear shoes" was one rather disturbing quote I uncovered during my research).

In short, any small thing you can do to improve the work environment should be done. You may be surprised which things the staff values. Very few managers I know think showers in the workplace add any value, but you never know. Some years back, an explosion cut off gas supplies in Melbourne. This meant an extremely large number of people (those with gas hot water systems) had no running hot water in their homes. People with working hot showers at their workplace were showing up for work real early and were in a much better mood than those with no showers.

The one caveat I would offer when consider adding little perks to the work environment is only do it if you're in it for the long haul. I almost hate to admit it, but the majority of CODE-IT staff will get more angry at having something taken away than they will at never having it in the first place. It's that whininess coming in again. Whatever you do, don't underestimate the importance of the environment in making your staff less angry. When you improve the environment you are saying "I want you to be in a good place, I want you to be happy here, I want you to stay here." And not many people would argue that's a bad thing.

The next part of this series will explore how to make CODE-IT staff less angry by making their work more interesting and fulfilling.

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