How to motivate the modern tech worker

When it comes to attracting and retaining IT talent, money talks -- but creative perks and company culture really help employers stand out.

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As a Midwest insurance brokerage navigating digital transformation, Ash Brokerage is committed to pulling out the stops to attract and retain the right IT talent. Because its Fort Wayne, Ind., location isn’t a draw compared to other metropolitan areas, Ash offers competitive salaries in addition to bonuses. But compensation alone isn’t enough to keep a deep bench happy and engaged, says CIO David Threm.

To heighten its appeal, the 400-person company offers its 26 IT staffers flexible work schedules and opportunities to attend conferences and take part in leadership training programs. In June of 2016, Ash moved into new headquarters in downtown Fort Wayne. The firm now occupies modern offices featuring millennial-friendly perks like foosball, Ping-Pong and video game setups. It all plays into a corporate culture that puts an emphasis on technology and tries to prioritize individual employees’ needs — themes that Threm says have bolstered IT recruitment and retention efforts.

“We try to remove a lot of barriers to people being successful,” says Threm, 47, who is also an executive vice president at Ash. “We don’t want them to think about salary or how to get flexibility if there’s a new baby at home. We want them to think about doing their job.”

Despite rising salaries, companies are still having a hard time filling tech positions. Just over half (52%) of IT managers who responded to Computerworld’s 2017 IT Salary Survey said it takes three months or longer to fill open positions.

Not surprisingly, in a November survey by IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology, 55% of CIOs said they were worried about employee retention over the next 12 months, and 24% said losing a highly skilled team member without notice would adversely impact the business, given the difficulty of finding a qualified replacement. That means companies like Ash need to think outside the box when it comes to attracting and retaining tech professionals.

The extent to which demand for IT talent outstrips supply is escalating because automakers, financial services firms and other companies in sectors that traditionally haven’t been big technology employers now find themselves in need of people with expertise in cloud computing, business analytics, security and other fields to drive digital transformation, notes Jason Hayman, research manager at IT staffing and services provider TEKsystems.

“The war for IT talent continues to rage, and the talent pool just can’t keep up with demand,” he says. “Salary and bonuses are one way to attract people . . . but it’s critical to have a variety of perks and benefits to make [your company] stand out from the crowd.”

To be sure, monetary bonuses are still effective motivation and retention tools: 63% of IT employees participating in the Computerworld salary survey placed a high value on annual bonuses, although other perks resonated nearly as well. Asked what type of benefits they prefer, 63% of respondents said they’re interested in telecommuting and flextime options, 52% cited company-paid excursions to conferences and industry events, and 49% mentioned technical, business or leadership training.

Perks with a twist

Trendsetting employers like Netflix and Facebook are serving up these traditional perks with a twist — offering employees the option of, for example, alternative work schedules, extended time off for sabbaticals or maternity/paternity leave, and reimbursement for expenses like day care and adoption fees, Hayman says.

Management-level respondents to the Computerworld survey said their companies mostly use more traditional tactics, the most popular being company-paid trips to conferences and industry events (cited by 48% of those respondents), telecommuting and flexible hours (47%), technical, business and leadership training (47%) and annual bonuses (44%). Less prevalent were spot bonuses or other employee reward and recognition programs (28%), free meals and snacks (25%) and on-site rec rooms (10%).

Hayman says the key to a successful perks strategy is to map incentives to company culture, ensuring that what’s offered is actually important to employees. “Not every company needs the full laundry list of perks,” he says. “Putting a Ping-Pong table in a cafeteria at an oil refinery probably doesn’t make sense. Companies have to take a few steps back and think about the employee value proposition.”

Culture club

Greg Meyers, CIO of Motorola Solutions, says he’s on board with the idea that retention is 80% about culture. After 50 years in suburban Schaumburg, Ill., the telecommunications equipment provider last fall moved to new digs in downtown Chicago, which makes it well positioned to attract talent, Meyers says.

Nevertheless, he admits, Motorola still has to pay top dollar for certain competitive skills. “If there’s an area where we have no skill sets, we’ll pay a market rate for someone who brings with them a book of knowledge, but we don’t do that for a whole department,” he says. “We prefer to train and develop from within.”

Along with competitive base salaries, Motorola pays bonuses based on a percentage of salary depending on pay grade — IT gets the same as other departments — along with equity stakes for certain positions, says Meyers, 44. Still, compensation is table stakes, he contends, adding that it’s really about creating a culture where people want to come to work. And that involves more than setting up a rec room or stocking a kitchen with all-you-can-eat snacks. “If you have a crummy culture and you put in a pool table, you still have a crummy culture,” he says.

Building camaraderie among Motorola’s 300 IT employees and keeping them engaged is key, says Meyers. To that end, he cites the company’s new collaborative office environment, flexible scheduling options and commitment to hosting creative social events like an annual miniature golf outing, carnivals and themed potluck lunches.

“People are less likely to leave a company if they connect with people they work with and build a social life,” he says. The strategy seems to be paying off — Motorola Solutions was on Computerworld’s 2016 Best Places to Work in IT list.

It’s a smart approach for smaller organizations as well. At Welltok, for example, many of the perks offered to the 200 employees map to the mission of the company, which markets a health management platform and services. (Because Welltok is a technology company, most of its employees are IT professionals, says CIO and CISO David MacLeod.)

For example, Welltok has an initiative called Café Well through which it provides a series of wellness programs, including free health assessments and screenings, companywide competitions like a daily step-count challenge, and even ice time at a skating rink located just outside of the company’s downtown Denver headquarters, says MacLeod. Another popular perk is Welltok’s own suite of health management tools, which may periodically remind employees to drink more water or stroll around the office to increase their step counts.

The company’s no-cubicle workspace design and comfortable seating areas are also a hit among the millennials who comprise a big part of Welltok’s workforce, says MacLeod, 56. There’s an abundance of free granola, yogurt, cheese and other snacks, along with easily accessible “huddle rooms” to encourage collaboration.

“They want to be able to collaborate, and they don’t like the idea of assigned rooms,” Mac­Leod says. “We’d rather they come into the break room, have a snack and collaborate than go to Starbucks.”

Train (and promote) to retain

At Halifax Health, paying big salaries and bonuses isn’t easy, but the nonprofit healthcare provider is able to retain IT employees because it emphasizes professional development, says vice president and CIO Tom Stafford. With 4,300 total employees, Halifax was ranked on Computerworld’s 2016 Best Places to Work in IT list, up from in 2015.

Halifax was recognized for its training and career development benefits, including a mentoring program, as well as perks like free fitness club memberships, wellness classes, and a weekly healthy food marketplace. Of the 100 large, midsize and small organizations on the 2016 Best Places list, Halifax placed second overall for career development, sixth for training and, not coincidentally, fifth for employee retention. (Its turnover rate in IT is 6.5%, according to Stafford.)

In addition to those benefits, the company emphasizes a promote-from-within culture to prevent churn among its 57 IT staffers, says Stafford, 47. “We retain employees because they see a future at Halifax,” he says. “There are examples of it all around them — the web developer who used to be on the service desk or the team lead who’s now a project manager. Our folks could work elsewhere for more money, but they can see a career path here at Halifax.”

Flexibility, recognition and teamwork count

For Joe Stephenson, 36, an infrastructure engineer in the Carlsbad Police Department in California, money is important, but not the primary motivator for sticking around. There are limits to pay raises and bonuses when you work for a government entity and are part of a union, as Stephenson is, but he says he’s OK with that as long as there are benefits that help him create a better work/life balance.

For example, his IT department’s flextime options let employees choose between working long hours Monday through Thursday with Fridays off, or working shorter hours five days a week. Stephenson opts for the latter schedule so he can take his kids to school each morning instead of hiring a babysitter. He also is able to come in late to accommodate special occasions — most recently, to see his daughter get an award.

“My manager takes into consideration the fact that I have a family, and those things are as important to her as they are to me,” Stephenson says. “The culture here is that our lives are about more than just our jobs.”

Sonja Reitter, 33, a global technology infrastructure specialist, says she draws a lot of motivation for her job from an employee recognition program offered by her employer, Sutherland Global Services. The Rochester, N.Y.-based company’s Extra Mile program allows people to recognize peers for specific accomplishments in a Facebook forum; each citation accrues points and eventually financial rewards.

Over the last three years, Reitter has received 377 recognitions from her peers, resulting in three $500 gift cards. She says the points paid for Christmas presents last year — a bonus for her entire family. But more importantly for Reitter, she is the fifth most cited person in the program, out of a global workforce of 50,000 employees. “It makes me feel like I really made a difference,” she says.

At Ash Brokerage, software architect Phillip Bercot says the compensation packages, flexible work arrangements and perks are great, but it’s having an IT leader and set of colleagues who have your back that really keeps people around. “I started with this group of people as an intern not knowing anything, and we evolved into a team,” says Bercot, 29, who has been at Ash for five years and worked with CIO Threm at a previous company. “It’s something I don’t consider abandoning because it’s like family.”

Editorial project manager Mari Keefe oversees the survey and data analysis for Computerworld's annual IT Salary Survey and other editorial research projects.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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