Sep 26 2007

How to Keep Top IT Talent

Tap these low-cost tips for satisfying and motivating your staff.
“Take time for the fun stuff,” says Bill Bott, deputy CIO for Missouri.

When a longtime employee in Oklahoma’s Office of State Finance Information Services Division recently announced her retirement, her boss, Joe Fleckinger, tried to convince her to stay. He asked her about projects that interested her and challenges she was looking for, and he encouraged her to reconsider. A talented technician, she had unique skills and knowledge he couldn’t afford to lose.

“We see the local market beginning to be much tighter,” says Fleckinger, director of the division. “There are a number of positions we’re trying to fill. About 40 percent of our people will be eligible to retire over the next five years.”

The woman took a few days to consider but decided to retire from the department and look for another job with a higher salary. “We just can’t compete with that,” Fleckinger says.

Experts say that government agencies need to be more creative when it comes to motivating and retaining talented employees. With the IT job market improving and many states predicting an exodus of up to 60 percent of their workforce to retirement over the next five years, employers need to rethink ways to keep workers happy and attract new ones. Some of the ways savvy supervisors are doing that are being creative in considering the possibilities, fostering a fun workplace and playing up the contribution IT makes to citizens.

Adopt a Can-Do Attitude

Fleckinger says his department has been studying ways to attract and retain good employees. He hopes that “offering opportunities to work with new technologies and challenging initiatives,” such as the construction of a new data center, the development of an enterprise resource planning system, and the replacement of several legacy systems, among other upcoming projects, will convince workers to stay and entice potential employees to join the ranks.

While money will always be a motivator, it’s not the only thing that gets people out of bed in the morning. In fact, studies show that meaningful and challenging work is a more important indicator of job satisfaction than salary or benefits are. And that’s good news for the public sector, according to Bob Nelson, a San Diego-based management training consultant who specializes in employee motivation and rewards.

Rather than focus on what they can’t do, public sector employers need to focus on what they can do, according to Nelson. “They say, ‘We don’t have the money to motivate people’ or ‘We can’t spend taxpayer dollars to do that,’ ” he says. “They paint themselves into a corner. But if you take all these things as givens and focus on what you can do, there are more things than you can count. It’s almost unlimited.”

He points to an Internal Revenue Service manager who took his employees bowling regularly, paying with his own money, and to a private sector manager who cooked lunch for his entire staff whenever they met their monthly production goals. The employees loved it and so did corporate executives, who offered to start picking up the tab. The manager said no.

“The lunch was such a great motivator because the employees knew it was coming from his own pocket; he was invested in their success,” Nelson says. “If corporate paid, some bean counter would say, ‘Does it have to be rib eye?’ And that would have changed the whole dynamic.”

Nelson says there is no reason why the public sector cannot take the same approach. It might be trickier, but it is doable.

Find Time for Fun

When 400 employees of the Missouri Division of Information Technology Services went to a St. Louis Cardinals game earlier this year, the outing raised a few eyebrows among state legislators who wanted to know who footed the bill.

The employees themselves did. Every year an ITS employee social committee raises money for an entertainment fund through employee contributions and fund-raising events, according to Bill Bott, deputy chief information officer. The division holds four events each year, including a bowling tournament and an employee picnic.

“It’s important to take time for the fun stuff,” Bott says. “We can’t do that officially — it would be irresponsible and our auditors would butcher us, but there are other ways to do this.” For example, the department charged employees $5 per person to attend the picnic at the local fairground and to play games such as “dunk the deputy CIO.” More than 300 employees and their families attended. “Things like that cost very little but have a huge impact on morale,” he says.

An engaged and accessible leader also boosts morale. Earlier this year the division hired college interns to conduct employee focus groups and come up with a plan to improve internal communication. Among the recommendations in the plan are establishing an ITS blog where the CIO and his deputies can post comments, and having them make monthly rounds to all the division’s departments.

Give People a Purpose

Equally important, Bott says, is helping employees recognize the value of their work.

“It sounds cheesy, but we try to stress the public good. In government, our profit is about healthy families, educated children, public safety. We want to tie peoples’ jobs to those kinds of outcomes.”

Diane Morello, an IT management analyst at Gartner, says that creating a sense of purpose and meaning is not only a critical motivating factor but the one most overlooked by government agencies.

“People want and need to make a difference,” Morello says. “Government downplays significantly what it can contribute to that need.” Rather than blame recruitment and retention challenges on salary and benefits, Morello says, IT leaders in government need to elevate and illuminate what their departments do.

Nelson agrees. “In my book, the things that motivate most cost the least,” he says. “I would put finding purpose and meaning in the work at the top of my list for motivating tech employees.”

More Than Money

Salary and benefits don’t even crack the top 10 factors influencing job offer acceptance among Massachusetts Institute of Technology grads. An annual survey of graduating students reveals the following top five factors:

  1. Job content
  2. Creative and challenging work
  3. Opportunity for career advancement
  4. Employer was a top choice
  5. Opportunity to make an impact

Motivational Speaking

Bill Bott, deputy CIO for Missouri’s Division of Information Technology Services, shares these suggestions for motivating IT employees:

  1. Seek Enthusiastic Employees: “It starts with hiring people who are excited about the job you are hiring them to do. It has to be intrinsic. Motivation based on fear or compensation doesn’t work. You constantly have to raise the bar in order to maintain motivation, but if an employee is motivated from the inside, you only need to remove what dissatisfies them to keep him.”
  2. Provide Challenges: “That’s the great thing about the public sector. A lot of companies won’t let you play with the fun toys until you’ve been there a while. In government, you get thrown into the major systems much sooner.”
  3. Be Accessible: “As leaders, you need to meet people face to face and talk to them about what is going on. People respond to that kind of communication and that response often equates to improved productivity.”
  4. Have Fun: Encourage camaraderie through activities such as a bowling tournament, a golf outing or a holiday party.