Monday, July 10, 2006

How to make IT staff less angry - Part Four: Interesting Work

This post is my fourth in a series providing some straightforward recommendations for managers responsible for the care and feeding of IT staff. I suggest reading Part One, Part Two and Part Three first if you haven't done so already but it isn't absolutely necessary. This part deals with the second key area of job satisfaction: the actual work performed by staff. This is one area where the Cabal Of Disaffected and Exploited Information Technology (CODE-IT) workers can be particularly demanding in ways that confuse managers and employers. To be honest, CODE-IT workers sometimes complain quite unfairly about their work being "boring" but this is an area where positive changes can be made to the great benefit of both staff and management.

So long as staff and management each understand where the other is coming from (aye, there's the rub.)

Because I honestly believe this is one of the most subjective areas of job satisfaction in the CODE-IT world, I will be treading more carefully than usual. The two extremes of the spectrum are the CODE-IT high-flyer who thinks everything is below his mighty intellect (and this type is almost universally male) and the manager whose motivational speeches consist of variations on: "Getting paid should be all the motivation you need, now shut up and do what I say." Neither of these attitudes is conducive to a happy workplace so I'll be exploring the middle ground today.

I've never been fond of the CODE-IT warriors who spout condescending lines like "I don't want to go to my grave saying 'at least I made the company database more stable'" (these days you're most likely to hear that sort of sanctimonious drivel from a Web2.0 entrepreneur or wannabe.) The truth is, somebody has to do the unglamorous jobs so it doesn't serve anyone's interests to degrade the day-to-day grunt work of the IT world. In fact, this is probably at least 75% of the work faced by IT workers so why is it looked down on so often? I think I hear the intake of breath as the CODE-IT equivalent of Opus Dei assassins prepare to kill me with poison darts from their blow guns (purchased on ThinkGeek of course) but here goes with some brutal honesty.

If you take on a job knowing full well the nature of the work involved, you should commit to doing that work no matter how boring you decide it is. There are two honourable courses of action: honour your commitment to do a job or leave for something you consider better. Don't sit on your arse and complain. I have been accused of simply whining in these posts but I have to admit I have no time for someone who complains about a job and does nothing constructive to remedy the situation. Bad management isn't the problem in these situations, the problem is a bad attitude.

Having said that, I would like to point out that management is in a very strong position to alleviate IT drudge-work. Too often, the complaints of CODE-IT workers are dismissed as whining ("They're never satisfied,") without looking at the root causes. Most CODE-IT workers complain about boring work not because they're complainers by nature but because they're trained, intelligent and driven individuals who want to be challenged and are constantly looking to expand their horizons. If your company can't benefit by harnessing and channeling this sort of power, well, you have bigger problems than complaining CODE-IT workers.

Some self-help for the CODE-IT brigade: so you're stuck doing boring work. Short of quitting and looking for a better job, what can you do? Step one: take pride in your work. If you can't find the dignity in your work, nobody can. Whether you're propping up the corporate database, refactoring code, tweaking the e-commerce engine or writing user manuals it actually feels better if you're doing the work to the best of your ability or better still, finding ways to stretch beyond your comfort zone. A friend of mine was a PhD doing some very fulfilling high flying research work at a well-known university when she was lured away to do contract/compliance analysis at a big legal firm by doubling her salary. People asked if she found this boring and she always said "No, because I apply the same intellectual rigour to this work as I did to my university research so I get similar stimulation."

Plus she was a lot richer. I doubt she'll be doing the contract work for the rest of her life but the point is, this is a very intelligent person choosing to do work that many people would find boring. Instead of focusing on the boring aspects she focuses on the positive and ends up feeling stimulated and well-rewarded. If you're not applying a similar positive approach to your work then you're falling into the old cliche: you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.

Step two to self fulfillment: identify the solutions yourself and then communicate, communicate, communicate. If you feel that your manager has no idea how to improve the quality of work assigned to you, this likely has one of two sources: (1) They don't care about you and your quest for interesting work (2) They don't understand enough about your work to realise how it could be made more interesting for you. So take charge: don't go to your manager with problems, go to them with solutions. And do yourself a favour; don't couch your solution in terms of how it will make your life better, say how it will benefit the company (increased security/stability/profits are all good).

But these posts were meant to be pointing managers to what they should do. So how can a manager decrease the angriness of CODE-IT staff by making their work more interesting? Listening is a good first step. Encourage your underlings to explain their issues to you, then find a way to turn these issues to your mutual benefit. Higher up the food chain, your focus should be on strategy rather than the nuts and bolts. Focus on your strengths (see how positive I'm being? Assuming managers have strengths!) and ask your CODE-IT legions how their nuts-and-bolts expertise can help deliver on the big-picture strategy. And just to repeat: LISTEN TO WHAT THEY SAY!

There are two absolutely poisonous things a manager can do in this scenario: (1) be two faced - ask for input with no intention of acting on it (2) come up with some totally inappropriate forced "fun" to make work more "enjoyable".

On point one, you are far better off never engaging with CODE-IT workers on this topic than getting them to come forward with suggestion that you intend to ignore. You may think you have come up with a cunning way to appease their whining by making them think you are their friend or are listening to them. They will see straight through this and know you are a lying sack of shit.

On point two, you can't force something to be fun. Forcing staff to go off on some "team-building" exercise can have two disastrous effects; one, if they really don't want to spend time outside the office with cow-orkers you'll just make them more resentful and anti-social. Two, if they actually have fun doing something that's totally unrelated to work you run the risk of simply highlighting how far away from fun work actually is.

Keep your motivational efforts focused on work. Encourage people to socialise by all means but don't force it. If your CODE-IT workers want to spend more time together, they'll do it without being forced. Also, social events have nothing to do with making the actual work more interesting. Enjoyable social events are part of the overall workplace environment as discussed in previous posts. This is linked to but distinct from interesting, challenging and enjoyable work.

The important thing is to make decisions based on your individual business and staff needs. Don't make sweeping generalisations about what work your CODE-IT staff will enjoy, engage them in the process. The high-flying, fast paced world of dot-coms/Web2.0/whatever the hell is coming next is not for everybody. Some people are absolutely terrified by that sort of thing. Including some of the best CODE-IT staff you may ever be lucky enough to find. Not everybody who maintains mainframes is forced to - some people positively thrive on it. Do your best to match the strengths of your staff to your business needs and you'll maximise both staff satisfaction and productivity.

Remember that; with CODE-IT workers (and almost everybody else), happiness and productivity almost always go hand in hand. I've worked for managers who clearly thrived on having angry underlings - if the staff were happy they must be getting away with something. Any sort of decent human should want their staff to be as satisfied as possible in their work while meeting business needs. That's somewhat intangible, but increased productivity - that you can explain at board meetings.

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