13th Annual Report: 100 Best Places to Work in IT 2006

Technologists at these companies are recognized as both creators and co-workers. When they propose ideas, their companies listen -- and act.

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Hands Across the Water

Best Places also extend relationship-building across the globe to international peers through cultural training and global travel. This is becoming important, with the average number of IT employees outside the U.S. increasing from 403 last year to 517 today at Best Places companies.

Such is the case at Kennametal Inc. (No. 96), a $2.3 billion maker of tooling systems, with operations in 60 countries. As the Latrobe, Pa.-based company increases its overseas presence, it encourages IT staffers at all levels to travel abroad and offers cultural training classes. Recently, two help desk staffers traveled to India to train new employees there. "Now, since they know each other so well, everything jells together," says Karen Romanko, manager of the project office and global support center. "It's like they're talking to their neighbor 10 feet away."

But you can't encourage good relationships if you're not willing to set that example at the top levels of the department, says Ralph Niederst, CIO at Kennametal. "You've got to show a sincere appreciation for people's efforts, and the key word is sincere," he says. That means knowing things such as employees' hobbies and what their kids are doing. "Half the time, if you know their name, they act surprised," says Niederst, who often takes IT staffers to lunch or even fly fishing or trapshooting.

It helps if the IT leader is extroverted, like the CIO at Sharp, who agreed to sit in the dunk tank at an event for raising IT group awareness. But it's enough to simply be responsive, like Charles Schwab & Co.'s CIO, who personally answers every e-mail sent to him within 24 hours.

Open, nonhierarchical communication is another characteristic of Best Places. "When they get to know you outside of work, they're not afraid to come into your office," Niederst says.

At Columbus, Ga.-based Aflac Inc., which ranks No. 25 on this year's survey, the lines between management and nonmanagement are intentionally blurred, according to Derrick Hensley, a senior applications developer at the $14.3 billion insurer. "Employees feel comfortable promoting their ideas," he says. "We know we can suggest ideas to help us be more efficient."

A Whole Person

Recognizing the human side of IT also includes providing benefits that make it easy to have a life outside of work. In the survey of Best Places employees, two benefits rated "extremely important" by respondents were flexible hours (41%) and telecommuting (36%), which were outstripped only by profit sharing, health insurance and paid vacation.

But that means listening to what IT employees really value in terms of work/life balance and then taking action. When a MasterCard survey revealed a strong desire among many employees for a fitness facility in the St. Louis office, for instance, the company built one. And when Allstate workers wanted to put a ping-pong table into a conference room, they were given the go-ahead.

Then there's providing support to employees who are going through difficult life changes. Marriott, for instance, has a program through which employees can offer a day or two of their own time off to co-workers who are in need of extra personal leave time. And like many of the Best Places, Allstate allows flexible work schedules, in addition to providing tools and technology to support remote work. In fact, when the spouse of the company's lead security architect was transferred to Maine recently, Allstate helped relocate the architect's position to that state, Sitkiewicz says.

Understanding that IT staffers need to continually update their skills and yet may be stretched for time, Best Places also create ample opportunities for advancing skills through e-learning programs that can be done at work or home or by reimbursing the cost of formal education. At Aflac, employees are not only reimbursed for exam fees for approved technical certifications, but they are also given a financial award when they pass the exam.

Allstate has implemented programs to train IT personnel in a variety of soft skills. For instance, IT workers attend weeklong project-management boot camps or engage in team-building exercises in off-site environments such as forest preserves. But that requires an investment, Brune says. "When all the expense conversations come up, it's the first thing people want to cut, but it's the last thing I'd cut out," she says.

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