Skilled employees are difficult to find and even harder to keep. IT managers can increase retention and fight employee burnout by rotating jobs, effectively scheduling shifts, assigning administrative duties, managing phone time, requiring employees to visit other areas of the organization, and building a culture of constant learning.
In July 2000, I wrote a series of articles on IT employee burnout. Although the IT labor market has changed in the past eight years, burnout is still a significant concern for IT managers. I compiled two of the articles from that series into this post. First, I'll share my personal burnout experience. Then, I'll walk through several ways IT managers can fight employee burnout.
My experience: When everything was new
When I first started working help desk, everything was new and exciting. Each day brought stimulating problems and fresh challenges. As time passed, however, most of the problems became routine and the challenges disappeared. I still enjoyed my job, but something was missing. The luster had gone out of working the help desk (especially after I created my hundredth Microsoft Outlook profile).
Why was I no longer motivated and eager for every Monday morning? I still loved technology and desperately wanted to further my IT career. I enjoyed interacting with my clients and coworkers. Even my boss was great and did what she could to help. Then, like a bolt of lightning, it hit me; I was bored.
The same old problems
I went to work every day to the same people with the same problems:
- "My printer won't print."
- "I've forgotten my password."
- "I can't get into my e-mail."
- "My computer keeps locking up."
- "Why is my computer running slow?"
Frankly, I just couldn't take it anymore. I was spending at least six-and-a-half hours each day on the phone, answering questions that were usually solved by rebooting. After 19 months, I was worn out and needed a change. So did several of my coworkers. Three other employees left the help desk the same month I did. They went to other departments within the same company, but all were seeking greener pastures. Like them, I had gone as far as I could at the help desk and had had enough. It was simply time to move on.
Fighting IT burnout
Although turnover exists in all professions, IT organizations are especially hard hit, and keeping skilled employees is a constant challenge. Greater pay, better benefits, and more perks may entice your employees to jump to other companies, but burnout shouldn't be a reason to lose quality staff, particularly when there are ways to combat it. The following suggestions can keep your workforce interested in and excited about their jobs. I know they would have worked for me.
Laying the groundwork
Before we begin, let me offer up a disclaimer. Each job is unique and has its own specific set of requirements. Use the following techniques at your discretion and with your best judgment. Furthermore, employees have to make the most of the opportunities presented to them. An employer can't make anyone like his or her job. If an employee has a bad attitude, regardless of your organization's goodwill, there's nothing that can be done for them.
Variety is the spice of work
I can't imagine anything more boring than an assembly line. Day in and day out, the same task over and over again. My mind goes numb just thinking about it. Most IT individuals I've worked with all wanted a challenge. They wanted to be continually stimulated and constantly learning. When their jobs got monotonous, they (myself included) got bored. Yet, while being one of the biggest burnout causes, monotony is also one of the easiest to fix. Try these solutions:
- Job rotation: If your help desk workers are on the phone all day and they would like to try something else, give them the chance. Have them make service calls with the regular support staff. Involve them in a special project. Have them work on documentation. The same goes for help desk technicians. If they need a break from client visits, have them do something else. Have them do new computer builds or upgrades. If your organization has multiple locations, they could even move to a different site for a few weeks.
- Shift scheduling: Make your work schedules as flexible as possible. I know that each job has specific considerations and time restrictions, but give your staff as much freedom as their jobs will allow. If they need to go to lunch at 12:30 one day and 1:00 the next, try to accommodate their needs. A rigid, repetitive schedule will wear most employees down very quickly.
- Administrative duties: If possible, give your employees regular tasks that take them away from their primary jobs. This suggestion goes back to my earlier point of breaking up the workday. After several hours of answering the phones, I always looked forward to my administrative duties. Whether it's reading incoming e-mail, answering voice mail messages, or doing a little network administration, these diversions make the workday more interesting.
- Phone time: This item applies primarily to call centers, but can affect help desk technicians in general. Allow them to take frequent breaks from the phones. Let them take the headset off and walk around, get a soft drink, and just relax. Listening to problems nonstop for eight hours can drive you up the wall. Even a two-minute break can recharge your employees' batteries, making them fresh and enthusiastic for the next client.
- Visit other areas of your organization: Too often, help desk workers perceive their clients as nothing more than a voice on the telephone. Remember that those asking for assistance also have faces. Getting to know their clients helps form stronger relationships and gets your employees away from their desks, even if just for a few moments.
When I started working the help desk, each day brought a new challenge and unique learning experience. But over time, the majority of my work became repetitive and uninteresting. To my employer's credit, I was given, and accepted, the opportunity to branch out, taking on new projects and responsibilities. However, this accounted for a mere 10 percent of my overall workweek. Give your employees the chance to broaden their work experience through new assignments, but also give them enough time to get involved.
In addition, provide your employees an opportunity to continue their education. Encourage them to use your organization's tuition reimbursement program, if one exists. If not, pay for your employees to attend a job-related training program that they're interested in, and then give them the chance to use this new knowledge in their jobs.
Don't forget to have fun
Finally, encourage your employees to have fun and provide them with the opportunity to do so. Set up a dartboard or sponge basketball hoop in your break area. Perhaps your employees would rather have a putting green or catered lunches once a week. Whatever you decide, make sure everyone has input into the decision-making process. Including everyone is essential for overall workplace happiness and occupational enjoyment.
I know not all these suggestions will work for everyone and every situation. I also know they require a significant amount of time and energy to implement. However, the potential payoffs are substantial and worth working for. Consider the cost of not implementing an employee retention program—continuous turnover.
Bill Detwiler has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop support specialist in the social research and energy industries. He has bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Louisville, where he has also lectured on computer crime and crime prevention.