Western Europe: IT Cultivates an Open-Door Atmosphere

Corporate culture in the region takes on a new focus on flexibility and communication, and IT workers reap the benefits.

It's 7:30 a.m., and already the major roads into Austria's picturesque capital, Vienna, are clogged with rush-hour traffic. Bored executives, resigned to the long crawl into the city, make their first business calls of the day, check e-mail on their personal digital assistants or listen to the radio.

On the outskirts of the city, Bernhard Reiss sits down to a leisurely breakfast, hears the traffic report on the radio and decides to skip going into the office. Instead, Reiss fires up his PC, logs on to his company's intranet, answers some e-mail queries from colleagues and completes a report for one of his customers -- all from the comfort of his own home.

When Reiss is asked what he values most in his working life, his answer is hardly surprising.

"Flexibility. That's what makes the difference for me," says Reiss, who works as a storage solutions manager at the Vienna headquarters of Compaq Computer Austria GmbH.

"The company has given me everything I need to be able to work from home if and when the need arises," he explains. "When I need to be concentrated and focused -- if I'm writing a report, for example -- I don't like to have too many people around me. Compaq understands that you don't necessarily have to be in the office to be productive. That's a major plus."

Reiss says he also appreciates the corporate culture of openness at Compaq, which stands in stark contrast to his earlier experience with some more traditional European companies, which he found "rigidly hierarchical."

"It was interesting to me to discover this more 'American' way of doing business in the IT industry. I like the open-door approach. If I have a good idea -- or a criticism -- then I can go to my manager and discuss it freely. If I can justify the idea, and it makes good business sense, then there is a pretty good chance that it will be implemented. That's the real payback, when you can see your own initiative changing things," he says.

Monika Hano-Junghans, a senior manager of IT architecture and framework at automobile manufacturer DaimlerChrysler AG in Stuttgart, Germany, points out that the benefits from this U.S.-style management work both ways.

"I always leave my door open for my staff, and they can come and see me at any time. That clearly helps the staff, but it also helps managers such as myself to keep in touch with issues as they arise," he says.

That style has had a positive effect on work relations as well, Hano-Junghans says. "The atmosphere is friendlier and less formal than before," he says. "Most workers address each other by their first name, which is a great improvement, especially for us in Germany, where we are used to being addressed by [our] family name."

Although many companies pay lip service to the concept of openness, Western Europe's best IT employers understand the strength that comes from cultivating a genuinely open work environment.

"The key word for us is listening. We are always trying to figure out what our partners, customers and employees really need," explains Gerhard Zimmermann, director of human resources at Compaq Computer Austria. "We try to respect thinking that is off the beaten track. This is not always easy to do, but it's vital to listen instead of being simply defensive. That's where real innovation springs from."

But being a best employer for IT workers involves more than an open door and a receptive ear. Perennial concerns such as pay, benefits, training and career advancement remain central to any human resources policy for hiring and retaining the best IT staff.

Yet if there's one thing on which both employers and employees agree, it's that money and perks aren't the only important factors in keeping workers motivated and interested in their jobs.

"Money is important, of course, but I don't think it's the main motivator for highly qualified people," says Patrick Semtob, human resources director at Groupe Steria SCA, a Velizy, France-based IT services company. "The key motivation, I think, comes from the challenge of the job itself. That's where the appeal lies."

In a competitive labor market, Europe's IT workers have come to expect generous pay and benefits. The best employers, therefore, recognize that financial inducements alone -- the celebrated "golden handcuffs" -- won't guarantee that they retain their best IT staffers.

"It's impossible to say that I'd never be tempted by an offer from another company," says Reiss. "However, what I do know is that when I look at other companies and how they work, I don't see the same level of flexibility and openness that we have at Compaq. It would take more than an offer of extra money to make me want to give that up."

Western Europe's elite employers stress that companies with higher IT staff retention levels generally share common practices such as achieving a balance between the employee's personal and professional identity, developing a sense of community, giving consistent feedback, and offering recognition and tangible rewards.

At SAP Austria GmbH in Vienna, for example, recognition and reward are central planks of the company's human resources strategy, enabling IT employees to quickly identify their strengths and fast-track their career progress.

"Because we usually start with young people, they often haven't got a very set view of where they want to be in five years' time," says Christian Rapberger, IT manager at SAP Austria. "When we see that they have a talent in a particular area, then we try to develop their skills and build from there."

A Warm Welcome

The battle to win the hearts and minds of employees is something that begins from Day 1 on the job. "We pride ourselves on the quality of the welcome that we give to our new recruits," says Christine Teulieres, human resources manager at the Paris office of IT services firm EDS France. "First impressions count, and we try to support our workers from the moment they first come in the door."

Part of this support comes in the form of mentoring programs, which have been adopted by all the leading companies contacted for this article. The mentor functions as an adviser to new recruits, helping them with everything from questions about their work to more basic issues such as where to find the nearest coffee machine.

As all IT hiring managers acknowledge, finding high-quality employees is the easier part of the recruitment process. The real challenge lies in making sure that the brightest recruits don't jump ship after gaining valuable on-the-job experience. After all, no company wants to function as an IT training academy for its competitors.

At SAP Austria, the emphasis is placed on rapid career development as an antidote to staff turnover. IT staffers usually look for a high degree of mobility in their careers and expect rapid advancement and increased responsibility as they develop through the ranks.

"I think it's important to have a challenge, to give workers the chance to take on new responsibilities and lead projects," says Rapberger. "This helps to develop leadership qualities. We develop people very fast. On average, most workers stay only a year or two in one position before moving onto something more challenging. This makes it very easy to motivate workers."

Developing Career Paths

At IBM Germany GmbH in Stuttgart, employees can tap in to a global database to satisfy their yearning for change. An employee development plan is available via the corporate intranet, organizing the different career steps, current openings and relevant contacts for job applications.

"Nothing is left to chance," says Juliane Wiemerslage, director of human resources at IBM Germany. "If an employee is no longer interested in their job, they have the possibility to internally apply to another position via the internal electronic application system. They don't have to change company if they're seeking a new challenge or simply a change of direction."

EDS France, which is a subsidiary of Plano, Texas-based Electronic Data Systems Corp., places emphasis on giving the employees a stake in their own future, while maintaining the sense of adventure and fun that attracted many employees into IT in the first place.

"While the company has obviously developed a lot since the early days, I think the corporate spirit has remained consistent," says Michael Obel, a systems engineer at EDS. "When I joined EDS, what struck me immediately was the friendly atmosphere -- thankfully, this is something we've managed to maintain despite growing so fast."

Top IT employers understand implicitly that nurturing their employees is a careerlong process and that the work is never truly finished. Total satisfaction for all employees at all times is neither possible nor practical, but the best companies are at least prepared to make the effort.

"I think the most important thing is to have meaningful work and to feel fully supported by the company and by one's own manager," concludes Compaq Computer Austria's Zimmermann. He says the employee/manager relationship is the key to retaining IT staffers. "There's an expression: People are joining companies but leaving managers -- which goes to the heart of what we try to achieve in Compaq," says Zimmermann.

Ultimately, successful companies in Europe, as everywhere else, understand the truth of the cliche that employees are the greatest assets of every enterprise. More important, they are prepared to make the necessary investment to ensure that their workforce has the material and moral support that's expected from top employers.

And if one can help workers avoid the rush-hour traffic, so much the better.

McGrath is a freelance writer in Paris.

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Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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