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How To Keep Your People Hanging Around

By By Grant Buckler

Eugene Roman is late for an interview. Though Friday afternoon is drawing to a close, Bell Canada's CIO has still taken the time to congratulate a staff member for completing a new system that will go live over the weekend - a small gesture, perhaps, but a telling one. Good people are hard to find - and good CIOs work hard to keep them.

"Rewards need to be done very quickly," Roman says. "I do what I call instant awards. Depending on the level of achievement, I will give the person something tangible instantly. If you come up with a million-dollar suggestion in my group, you will get a Mont Blanc pen right then." Another reward is a sterling-silver computer mouse.

This is part of Roman's effort to make Bell Canada a better place for IT people to work. His focus is on giving his staff interesting work - not difficult at Bell these days, he says - and making sure they know they're appreciated. "It's a question of how do you turn them on as opposed to turning them off."

Despite the much-bemoaned shortage of IT people, some Canadian CIOs are doing pretty well at attracting and keeping IT staff. And when you ask any of them what makes the difference, they talk first about challenging work and appreciation for employees' efforts.

One thing is clear: money is not everything. Yes, skilled IT people expect to be paid well, and an employer not prepared to meet their expectations will have little luck hiring or keeping the best people. Salaries must be in line with prevailing rates, and other financial benefits such as stock options help, especially for startups. For instance, Group Telecom, a young Toronto-based competitive local exchange carrier, offers stock options to every new employee, says Debbie Toole, vice-president of human resources.

Despite talk of a "brain drain" to the United States driven by lower taxes south of the border, though, money is just table stakes. "Almost everybody is willing to pay enough money, so it's other attractors that make the difference" says Faye West, director of information systems at the Alberta Research Council and president of the Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS).

A recent study by Accenture (formerly Andersen Consulting) concluded that the employers having a hard time getting and keeping IT people rely too heavily on salary increases and bonuses, while the successful ones offer lots of career opportunities and chances to develop skills.

"What employees are looking for is to join a team that has space to grow," says Robert Beauchemin, president and chief executive of recruiting firm CNC Global Ltd. in Toronto. "They want to join a company that's going somewhere. They want to contribute to interesting projects."

Variety And Challenge

Anthony Delmonte, a usability manager at Bell Canada in Toronto, says he would look for variety and new challenges in choosing a job. "A broad range of industry exposure would definitely be interesting, as well as the opportunity to work with a broad range of technologies," he says.

That's easy for Montreal-based Silanis Technology Inc., whose electronic-sig-nature technology is used in e-commerce applications. "One of the main ways that we're able to attract these techies is our product," says Dianna Kelly, Silanis' director of human resources. "We're in a new, emerging market, and engineers' focus always seems to be on learning, and especially learning new technology. It always seems to pique their interest when they're going through our Web site or when they're in an interview with us."

Sometimes appealing to the IT professional's desire for a challenge is a matter of recognizing and emphasizing your strengths. At the Alberta Research Council, West does not try to hire applications developers. "In my shop," she says, "I couldn't possibly keep applications developers on staff because there's nothing for them to do a lot of the time." So West outsources whatever applications de-velopment work she needs. But she has no trouble attracting network specialists, because the Research Council does plenty of advanced network technology work. "There are challenging things for them to do and there's a lot going on," says West.

Give Them Responsibility

Employees have to be given responsibility - and that doesn't just mean that if anything goes wrong, the employee is held responsible.

"Creating an environment where people feel like they are succeeding, where they have the ability to drive and run their own business, is really key," says Kevin Dunal, managing director of Adobe Systems Canada Inc. in Toronto. "It gets back to some basic management principles of well-defined goals allowing responsibility with authority.

"We always joke that this is a great place to fail," Dunal continues. "You can take risks. You are empowered to try things out and openly discuss the risks associated with it. The environment [encourages people] to push the envelope a bit, and if it doesn't work, then try something new." The approach must be working because Dunal says he has not lost any of his roughly 40 Canadian employees in two years, except to Adobe's California head office.

Four times a year, Adobe Canada holds a corporate planning session called True North. Everyone from receptionists to applications engineers participates. The purpose is to review corporate goals.

As part of each session, each employee relates his or her biggest "blooper" of the past quarter. The idea is to discuss what went wrong and how it was handled.

Then discussion moves on to where the business is going.

Bell is entering the second year of a program called Net Force. Five Masters of Business Administration graduates who joined the IT group last year formed the first team. This year there will be 11. Members are given challenging projects, with special coaching from senior people. The program also includes what Roman calls reverse mentoring, where each newcomer is assigned to spend time with a senior executive and pass on his or her ideas about where technology and e-business are going. Alumni of the first Net Force team are now helping set up the program for the next year.

Opportunity To Learn

Enthusiastic technologists want to learn new things - partly because it keeps the job interesting, and partly because they know they must keep themselves marketable. "They ask, 'what skills am I going to pick up by taking that particular job over some other job,'" says Declan French, chairman and chief executive of Toronto outsourcing and recruiting firm Thinkpath Inc.

And helping the employees you have to learn new skills is better than hiring new people and letting old ones go as needs change. That happens all too often. "If you hire people because you didn't do the training, then you're not going to keep them," warns Nick Foster, chief executive of Toronto-based Web-design firm Web Front and a former consultant to high-tech executives.

Web Front employees regularly spend time playing with new technologies, just to learn about them. They meet over lunch regularly to discuss a new technology - currently it's Microsoft's .net - and set weekly goals. "We don't say to people that they have the ability to delay or lag on projects," Foster says, "but we do say this fun thing is something that we want to get done at the same time."

While interesting work counts for a lot, there is such a thing as too much excitement. The long hours and stress that come with big projects on tight schedules take their toll after a while.

"We've found that people are really passionate about the business and they're doing what it takes to get the job done," says Toole at Group Telecom. "But as we mature, we need to look at providing the opportunity for a better balance." In Group Telecom's first year, many employees took no vacations, or took less time than they could have. This year, the company has said it will limit carrying over of unused vacation days, in an effort to encourage its staff to take time off.

"There are many people who are motivated in high-adrenalin work environments where they use the stress as a way of achieving personal excellence," says Nora Spinks, president of consulting firm Work-Life Harmony Enterprises in Toronto. "But there's a point where it becomes negative, especially if you have high demands and little control."

If the job does demand extra time, Spinks says, it helps to give employees flexibility. "If they are night people, let them work at night. If they are early morning people, let them work early mornings." Being able to work at home or get away from work when necessary helps too. Spinks likes the idea of "decompression zones" such as nap rooms and meditation areas.

"The first thing that employees look for is respect, and recognition that they have a life outside of work and that they're not just little production machines," Spinks says. Too few get it. "I'm optimistic that change will occur. I'm less optimistic about how that change will occur," she concludes. "I think that change is coming, but I think it's coming because people are going to be forced to change."

Jim McKeen, head of the MBA for Science and Technology program at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., says that while the baby-boom generation has largely accepted accelerating time demands from their employers, younger people - at least those with skills that are sufficiently in demand to let them get away with it - are less willing to work ridiculous hours and be on call constantly. "They're right," he adds. "This is the best bit of pushing back and fresh thinking that I've seen in a long time."

"We've been getting a lot of refugees from the dot-com start-ups who were looking for a little more stability in their lives," says Annette Gearing, senior resource manager in the Bank of Montreal's information technology group, known as EMFISYS. "They wanted the excitement of working on new technology, but they didn't want to be working seven days by 24 hours."

Innovative Perks

Those dot-com refugees might be glad to escape the long hours - not to mention the uncertain futures of some of their former employers - but they may also bring along some expectations foreign to more traditional workplaces. Internet companies in particular, and the high-tech sector in general, have built a reputation for unusual perks such as games rooms, well-stocked fridges and permission to bring pets to work.

Silanis, for instance, has a gym, a games room, and a kitchen that Kelly describes as a meeting spot for employees, with a bistro atmosphere.

Some of this has spilled over into more traditional offices. At EMFISYS there are "oases" with comfortable, modern furniture, TV sets and kitchens, where co-workers can take a break from the routine or meet to discuss things. And Nesbitt Burns, the Bank of Montreal's brokerage subsidiary, set up a work space called the e-loft in Toronto's loft district, with high ceilings, modernistic furniture, lots of light, and yes, a pool table.

Similar ideas appear in the bank's Institute for Learning. Built a half-dozen years ago as "a visible indication of the bank's commitment to ongoing development and learning," says Dave Revell, senior vice-president of EMFISYS, the training facility features grand hallways, a bar, a pool table, and karaoke on Thursday nights for employees attending courses there. Visitors from outside Toronto stay in a hotel that is part of the institute.

Such things help if they represent genuine concern for employees. "If the relationship you have with your people is trusting and you're looking after them," says Foster at Web Front, "then it sure is nice if your environment is a little more comfortable and you can bring your dog to work. But if it's just window dressing, people see through it."

In short, you can't fob people off with gimmicks. You must respect them and recognize their contributions.

At the Bank of Montreal, there are annual awards for major contributions to the bank's IT efforts - last year they were called the Chief Technology Officer's Awards - and people are nom-inated from throughout the IT group. Besides that, Revell says, "we've given a lot of flexibility to our first-line executives and senior managers to re-cognize contributions within the teams."

Get The Message Out

Making your IT shop a great place to work will go a long way to keep present employees around, but it's only half the battle in luring new people. Having created a workplace that will appeal to IT specialists you must still let them know what you have to offer.

A three-day internal trade show called Technologica last year brought together IT and business people from all over the Bank of Montreal to see what was going on in IT. One evening the bank brought in about 250 university students. They got a look at what Bank of Montreal is doing in technology and a chance to meet executives, who stayed for the evening to host the event. Though it was not exactly a recruiting exercise, the bank collected a number of resumes and will probably hire some of those students, says Gearing.

By showing off its technology, the bank sought to dispel the image young IT job-seekers might have of banks as stodgy institutions. Revell thinks it worked. "They tend to be blown away when they come in and we're able to show the depth and breadth of what we're doing," he says.

Bell Canada takes an account-manager approach to seeking the best graduates from major Canadian universities. Roman has assigned each of his vice-presidents to a university, and has himself taken on the job of working with Queen's. They spend time at the universities, get to know the faculty, and identify promising students Bell may want to hire. And they get the message out to students.

"We explain the excitement that we experience in our everyday jobs and see if that excites them too," Roman says. "When we went into Queen's, we got a fascinating response from the students. They said: 'I never realized that that was going on within Bell - I always thought of Bell as a telephone company.'"

Leads from Employees

Often the best sources of leads for new employees are the employees you already have. Group Telecom pays $500 to any employee who recommends a job candidate who ends up being hired. About 38 per cent of the company's hiring comes from internal referrals. Bell pays $2,500 when an employee-referred candidate is hired, and another $2,500 if the person is still at Bell a year later. Roman says he has hired about 70 IT people through this program.

CIOs who do well at recruiting also say it's important to be visible in the industry. Sending speakers to conferences, participating in industry associations and publicizing the company's technology achievements are all good ways to develop a reputation as an exciting place to work.

But before you can get the message out, you need a message. "To create an exciting work force, you have to have an exciting workplace," Roman says. "If your workplace is not exciting, make it exciting."

Grant Buckler is a freelance writer specializing in information technology and IT management. He is based in Kingston, Ontario.

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Published at 20:02

11 March 2011

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