Creating a Culture of Care

You’ve succeeded in building your fast forward technology team. Your team functions as a high-speed-rail, moving swiftly from one incident to another, picking off work orders along the way. Then the train jumps the rail, and it feels as if your team is crashing before your eyes.

The Culprit? Complacency Creep.

For reasons known and unknown, your team has begun to meander through the maze of mediocrity. Their attitude is in the crapper, and you discover they’re seeking employment outside the company and/or losing productivity within it.

• “Holy Schnikes Batman, What the _ _ _ _ happened?”

• What caused a once committed team player to suddenly disengage?

• Why are they looking elsewhere, when this is the best job they ever had?

• What could have been done to prevent, or at least, decelerate this disastrous derailment?

To keep top-level tech employees, it is a necessity that we create a culture that fosters both loyalty and growth.

Developing a Culture of Loyalty and Growth

There are five critical areas for which we must apply a certain level of attention if we plan on retaining and growing our tech staff:

1. Work Environment / Culture

2. Continuing Education / Career Development

3. Hardware / Software Programs / Stuff

4. Rewards / Incentives for Smart Work

5. Recognition /Appreciation

Here, we will break each of these points down so that, in the end, we have the tools we need to make sure our staff doesn’t seek out greener pastures or lose focus.

Let’s begin with the bigger picture.

1. Work Environment / Culture

One of the most significant problems that plague technology employees is burn-out. It’s an industry of testing and triage, and when something breaks, you can bet your tech staff is on the call. That can easily lead to over-stressed workers and, ultimately, a derailment.

We rightly to expect staff to answer the call “whenever necessary.” It makes sense, especially in specific industries. Our businesses must run, and run smoothly, which could mean having techs on the clock after hours and weekends, with 70-80 hour weeks being quite common in some sectors. If we find ourselves making such demands, it’s time to rethink some things.

Overworked staff is not a solitary problem. The culture, as a whole, needs to be conducive to efficient work, and to teamwork and trust. How can your work culture help gain the trust and loyalty of your team?

Physical Factors—Remove the Barriers Literally

The cubicle farm is the go-to form factor for most offices. The thing is, in general, workers hate them. It says “you’re not worth a real office, so we’ll give you this pretend one.” The journal of environmental psychology found that employees in cubicles are the most frustrated when it comes to air and light quality, ease of interaction and a variety of other factors.

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So, instead of the old five-foot wall treatment, open the space up. Give your layout an overhaul that enables your staff to work more easily together and gives an open-air feeling of freedom and trust. Of course, not every organization is conducive to such design. If that’s the case, do what you can to avoid the dreaded cube farm.

A quality work environment doesn’t end at the physical. You have to consider the emotional and psychological as well.

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Points to Ponder. . .

  1. Does your staff feel free to express themselves, or do you hear crickets when you attempt to engage them in the discussion?
  2. Do they trust their fellow employees? They may get along and work together, but do they trust one another?
  3. Do you run your department with an iron fist? Do you show them the soft side of your personality as well as the tough side?
  4. Are you tolerant toward intellectual sarcasm, or hazing or gossip? Do you pick up on continual pokes or slights between your team?
  5. Does your staff feel they can come to you with issues? Do you listen, then attempt to understand? Do you feel you have to have all the answers and are formulating a response before they have concluded their points?
  6. Do they have autonomy and ownership over their work? Are you a micro-manager? Do you have difficulty handing off tasks that they are more than capable to handle? (ex. supporting company executives.)

Risk and Fit Assessment

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When using a team approach to hiring, I like to use The Risk and Fit Assessment Tool I developed over the years. The synopsis is this; Ask yourself these 2 questions:

  • Based on resume, skills, knowledge, and ability—” Can I RISK hiring this person?”

If the answer is yes, then ask yourself:

  • “Will this person FIT in our team?”

I developed a questionnaire that asks interviewees technical questions and relational questions to answer these two main questions. In my experience, I weight 30% of the RISK assessment and 70% to the FIT assessment. We can teach skills, but we cannot teach likability and temperament. Remember, your team will work with this individual 8,9,10 hours a day. You need their input.

Another important rule to remember is this: If you run your team with an iron fist, you will eventually push the best people away. You cannot be inflexible and expect loyalty.

There’s a vast amount of work out there for good technologists. If they don’t like where they work, or whom they work for, they can easily find another gig. Leading your team with a rigid rule of law will only drive those staff members to jobs where they have more flexibility and freedom.

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Two areas of flexibility you can offer are:

  • Hours worked and
  • Where employees work.

You can allow your team members a bit more flexibility in their schedule, especially since some work simply cannot be done during normal work hours. Many helpdesk and infrastructure team members work 80% or more utilizing remote access tools, they can often be allowed to work from home or other locations. This can lead to such things as split shifts, or be used as a “Spot Bonus” which we will discuss later. Either way, by allowing staff to telecommute some or all of the time will go a long way to making them happy.

There is, however, one area you must rule with an iron-clad gauntlet. Bullying, intimidation, hazing, and sexual misconduct have no place anywhere. If you hear of such behaviors, you must stop them immediately. If those same behaviors continue, action must be taken – even if that means firing the offending staff.

Of course, you may never know these issues, if your staff doesn’t feel like they can come to you with them. You must foster a culture that tells your staff you have an open door. To facilitate this, you might either post specific office hours that are dedicated to staff interaction (where staff members can walk in, unannounced) or you could even work outside of your office, in a common area, during certain periods throughout the workday. Without that open door, your team will never trust you or the company in which they work.

2. Continuing Education / Career Development

If there’s one thing that is certain, the intellectual prowess of the tech teams must be challenged. It’s not enough to be left to the daily grind of development, deploying and break-fix. No. they must be put to the test in the classroom (or virtual classroom) as well.

Of course, the education of your staff has the added benefit of giving your team even more skills with which to pull from and allows them to produce more quickly and efficiently while staying on top of best practices and the latest technologies.

But above all, employees consider paid training a solid benefit. Technology professionals expect further education or training to be included in their work. If you don’t offer paid training to your employees, they can find a company that will.

3. Hardware / Software Programs / and Other CoolStuff

Purchasing programs are an outstanding way to prove your dedication to your staff. These types of programs allow your staff to purchase hardware, software and other goods through channels they may not have access to outside of work.

Think about it: your teams are made up of techs of all kinds – and techs like their toys. Having the ability to gain access to an employee purchase program (EPP) will go a very long way to making employees happy.

If you already have purchasing set up directly through a vendor (such as Dell, Lenovo, LG, Verizon, etc.), You should call those companies to find out if they extend to employee purchasing.

Extending EPPs beyond technology is yet another way to help gain employee retention. For instance, you could partner with a local gym to give employees free (or greatly reduced) memberships. Ask around, and you’ll be surprised what you come up with.

4. Rewards / Incentives for Smart Work

One of the easiest ways to gain loyalty is increasing employees’ salaries. It’s been the “gold standard” for a very long time. At the end of the year, you offer up your employees a standard “cost of living” increase at least and bonuses (often based on productivity or merit).

Without this type of incentive, you’d be hard pressed to retain your staff at all. Similarly, refusing to think beyond the “standard” can have the added effect of keeping your company locked into tired ways of thinking.

In other words, you won’t grow. Incentives need to stretch beyond the simple. There are plenty of other perks you can offer staff to bolster loyalty. Many of these perks can be given as incentives to work harder, learn more, mentor other staff, etc.

Non-Standard Perks Come in Many Flavors

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Make sure perks are of value to the employee and attainable. If managed poorly, offering perks can get you into a bit of trouble. What you don’t want to happen is that your employees are only motivated by collecting these perks.

Make sure:

  • Goals are clear
  • Perks aren’t handed out randomly
  • You don’t Play Favorites
  • Limit the number of perks a team member can be rewarded in a given period.

Offering these rewards allows you to give employee incentives year round (as opposed to the standard end of year bonus/raise). The combination of the two (or three, if you give out both bonuses and raises) would be a serious incentive for your staff to remain on board.

5. Recognition /Appreciation

Staff like to be challenged, enjoy a purchase (or two) and respond positively to perks. But we’re missing the easiest (and cheapest) means of staff retention:

Recognition.

People want to be recognized and appreciated for their achievements.

Within so many companies it’s easy for successes to fall by the wayside and failures to be brought to light. Although some managers consider that an effective means of keeping staff on their toes and working hard, that method will eventually cause staff loyalty to fade.

Why Recognize?

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When you make a habit of only recognizing failure, you send a clear message to employees that success is only valued as a means to your bottom line. You may think that agenda hidden, but most employees eventually solve that puzzle. When they do, attrition will quickly rise. When a company, from management up, fails to recognize the efforts of those who help build the foundation, the internal fabric begins the slow process of rot.

Recognition will go a long way to ensure your team knows you see and value what they do. But don’t think you should just send that employee an email or leave a voice message. Depending on the person and how they react to attention, consider making recognition in public.

Send out a companywide email or make announcements of achievements at company meetings.

If you make recognitions public, your staff will know you “get it.” That kind of connection is crucial, especially within the world of technology. Working with management who has no comprehension of the job challenges is a hard-sell to the tech elite. Understanding the challenges helps the staff know you will not expect the impossible and that you are aware of the work necessary to complete a task.

When you work without such an understanding, you have no idea what should or should not be expected. Beyond the expectations, recognizing a job well done is the simplest method of team building. And although many find “Team Member of the Week” awards to be on the cheesy side, they do actually work, especially if you allow the team members to pick the person instead of management. Just be sure your team doesn’t turn it into a popularity contest, but rather a way to recognize everyone on the team at different points in time.

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Staff retention grows harder and harder with every new generation. The old tried and true system of incentives are not nearly as effective as they once were. It’s time to start thinking beyond the norm. When your staff understands the extent at which you are willing to go to keep them around, they will repay you with hard work and loyalty.

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Mark Howie

Mark Howie founded ABT | Abacus Black Technologies in response to the need for small to medium-sized businesses in the Central and South-Eastern United States East to have access to a full-service IT department without the overhead expenses of in-house systems and personnel. Mark has authored publications including: "Fundamentals of IT Auditing" and "Securing your Networks." He is US Army veteran, married to his soulmate of 27 years, and father of two. He resides with his family and two dachshunds, just north of Ocean Springs, MS.

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