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KEEPING A HAPPY FACE ON I.T.

DOWNTURNS DON'T DIMINISH NEED TO RETAIN TOP EMPLOYEES

AS THE U.S. ECONOMY ROARED THROUGH THE LATE 1990S AND INTO 2000, TECHNOLOGY WORKERS experienced a sellers' market for their skills. Colorado companies wooed anyone who knew the difference between PERL and Java, and often stole other companies' workers to fill vacancies.

Salaries started at $60,000 to $80,000. Desperate recruiters dangled stock options, personal valet services, catered meals and an assortment of other, more quirky perks before their prospects.

The standard workplace was transformed from a serious, sterile cubicle farm requiring somewhat formal attire, to a cool place to hang out and do some coding between matches in the day's Foosball tournament.

But as the economy stomped on the brakes last year, reality resurfaced in the workplace. "Employees have always reminded me of stock traders in that, when it's time to be paranoid, they're more paranoid than they should be, and when they can be arrogant, they're more arrogant than they should be," said Lu Cordova, president of the Boulder Technology Incubator. "We've moved from a market of arrogance to a market of paranoia pretty quickly over the past year and many people are happy to have their jobs."

Yet while conditions have softened the demand side of the employment equation, Cordova and many other Colorado information technology executives are quick to admit they've learned some lessons during the years of frenzy Most importantly, they discovered how a few employee-oriented efforts could play a key role in retaining top IT performers.

"We work on retention pretty much every day," said Chuck Shellhouse, an operations executive with tech services firm EDS in Colorado Springs. "And frankly, we do more things for top performers than those who are just along for the ride, because those are the people we can't afford to lose."

Money is no longer the easy answer to holding on to key employees. Not only are companies unwilling to throw cash at an IT employee contemplating a move, they've found that valued employees care about more than cash. Appreciation for their role in the business, for example. "These are not dumb people," said Jon Nordmark, president and CEO of Greenwood Village-based eBags. "They're really smart, good at what they do, and want to be treated with respect."

To that end, most companies accommodate personal preferences by adopting flexible schedules and dress codes. However, to build a stronger sense of mutual respect between management and IT professionals, other companies step beyond the basics. As the chief of a privately held venture, Nordmark opens the books to employees and shares the nuts and bolts of the company's finances. Executives at Spectra Logic in Boulder are similarly open with employees, allowing for enterprise-wide comprehension of the reasons behind business decisions, according to Troy Bettinger, the company's "chief talent scout" and a past president of the Colorado Technical Recruiters Network (CTRN).

"Everyone knows where we stand and what we have to do to get where we're trying to go," Bettinger said. "We like to think we're building a community across the company and keeping the doors open is a big part of that."

As part of a large, publicly held company, the EDS division in Colorado Springs can't provide such access to financial specifics. Instead, Shellhouse and fellow executives actively solicit opinions of employees throughout the organization and try to implement the stronger ideas.

Struggling companies also are defusing potentially explosive developments by leveling with employees.

"Instead of layoffs, management will get up in front of everybody and explain that sales are off and costs need to be cut, so they're asking for volunteers to work a four-day work week," said Kimberly Kennedy, a CTRN board member and contract recruiter with ProDX, a Portland-based IT consulting firm with a Denver office. "When they lay their cards on the table, employees get the sense that they're making their own decisions about their career. That keeps morale up.

Many companies are still finding economical ways to instill fun in the workplace. A round of pizzas, day trips to the mountains and the occasional ping pang table still make workplace appearances, although they're no longer automatic. "I think toys have become part of the culture of the tech development industry" Cordova said. "But I think you'll see them as things to be earned, and in turn, things that employees are proud of because of the hard work it took to earn them."

Beyond current projects, most IT professionals crave career development -- the opportunity to learn the latest technologies and freshest approaches to solving IT problems. "That isn't going to change if the economy drops off," said Professor Joe Rosse, director of the Center for an Integrative Study of Work at the University of Colorado-Boulder. "No doubt that's what attracted some of them to the startup dot-coins, and some of them learned hard lessons during the downturn, but that's still a big attraction."

Given Colorado's position as a region with advanced tech innovation, most employers say they can offer cutting-edge projects and on-the-job advanced training. Larger organizations, such as EDS, also tap a much broader network of facilities to offer opportunities in other parts of the United States or abroad.

However, promises require commitment.

"It's the smart companies that give people an opportunity to learn something new," said Patrick Allen, owner of Allen Consulting Group. "The dumb ones will go hire an outside contractor for the job, and that basically implies to current employees that the job's too important to be handled internally."

Yet some companies aren't so certain that bells and whistles of any sort are worth the expense.

"Some companies appear to already be vindictive about what they went through nine months ago," Kennedy said. "They're reverting to the position that you're lucky to have a job, and they're bringing salaries down to a more realistic level."

In response, Nordmark, who's seen just one IT pro leave in nearly three years, said: "In the end, those companies will lose good employees and companies like eBags will get them."

ECONOMIC STORMCLOUDS CONTAIN SILVER LININGS

According to Gartner, a research and consulting firm based in Stamford, Conn., economic slowdowns swing a double-edged sword. While sales can slump and profits can sag, adept organizations use the slowdown to whip internal processes into shape. As a result, there's a strong likelihood that for every two companies that put off workplace initiatives, another organization will fine its operations and gain an edge on its competitors.

In a recent study, Gartner concluded that successful companies take the following steps during periods of uncertainty:

* Bolster workforce management programs

* Redesign workforce planning processes

* Beef up performance management

* Introduce discipline into project plans

* Identify and quantify intellectual capital

* Build up management and leadership talent

WORKPLACE EVOLUTIO

Lu Cordova, president of the Boulder Technology incubator, says workplace perks follow a Darwinian track: Of the fun and games introduced during times of high innovation, a handful will actually evolve as workplace norms. Here's quick assessment of some perks:

HIGH LIKELIHOOD FOR SURVIVAL

RELAXED DRESS CODE. Seeing a client? Wear the tie, the coat or whatever's appropriate Sitting next to johnny for the 23rd day in a row? Jeans are just fine.

FLEXIBLE WORK HOURS. As long as the work gets done, an eight-hour workday can start at 6 a.m. or 11 a.m.

TELECOMMUTING OPTIONS. Two or three days at home may even boost the commute-free productivity of a top performer.

CELEBRATORY OUTINGS. Twenty group-rate tickets to a Colorado Rockles game: Less than $300. Opportunity to take the afternoon off and interact with coworkers in a fun, festive atmosphere priceless.

QUALITY COFFEE. Joe addicts in the IT department will understandably revoolt at any downgrade.

ON THE ENDANGERED LIST

LAVISHLY CATERED MEALS. Why pay for Brle and smoked salmon when grilled burgers and bratwurst can just as effectively satisfy lunchtime hunger?

BIDDING WARS. It's hard to have leverage when 20 other people want the job as much as you do.

PUPPY LOVE. Many smaller companies still open the door to employee pets but if cleanup bills start to affect the bottom line, Fido goes home.

UNEARNED TOYS. Remember when you were a kid and Christmas toys quickly lost their luster? Maybe is because "being good" wasn't" really hard work.

STOCK OPTIONS. As if anyone takes these seriously anymore.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Wiesner Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:retaining information technology employees
Author:MEYERS, KERBY
Publication:ColoradoBiz
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2001
Words:1383
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