TechRepublic editors Mike Jackman and David Bard are currently trekking through Nepal on their way to the Imja Tse peak at 20,285 feet. ThisalmostEverest adventure is bound to test the limits of their tenacity, patience, and inventiveness—but those qualities are equally important in a sea-level IT environment. Here are some suggestions for keeping your staff focused and positive, even if your high-pressure projects involve routers rather than pitons.
While a high-stress situation for an IT pro probably doesn’t include trekking across Nepal, it can sometimes feel like it. When senior staff can’t log onto the network, or a big client is complaining about an overdue software installation, things can get ugly. And that scares employees.

As a manager, it’s your job to keep your staff motivated when the pressure is on. We talked to a few managers for their tips on preventing an employee meltdown.

Nobody’s happy
Rudolph Hoffman, president of RH Consulting Inc. in Littleton, CO, recalls a particularly stressful job in which his firm replaced airline-provided equipment with a new network and 18 new PCs for a travel agency. He and two technicians took care of the job, which was far from well planned on the client’s side.

“Nothing they said they would handle was done, and we had a short window in which to complete the job,” he said. “We had a weekend to cable the office, unpack the new computers, place the computers, and configure the computers and the network. Along with this, the client decided to move the furniture since the old computers were gone. We figured it would be a quick job…one and a half days of easy work. It took us two 12-hour days to complete, and some time in the next week to finalize.”

Hoffman said that the client was inhospitable since the job wasn’t finished on time. “No one was happy,” he remembered.

His first rule of motivating employees is to keep calm. “If the employees see you feeling the pressure,” he said, “they feel it even more.”

Hoffman also rewards employees who work on lengthy and stressful projects. “At lunch, and at the end of the day, I would take the techs out to eat,” he noted. “That’s normally not what I do, but since things were going badly, it was appreciated. An extra day off also helps.”

In addition, he lets the employees complain—not in front of a client, but when the staff is at lunch or back at the office. He said it “lets them release the tension. However, [that] can only happen if the employees trust you in the first place, and that is the key to having good employees.”

Pressure points
When under pressure to just get things done, employees can often lose sight of why they are trying to accomplish a certain project.Daniel Goulet, director of information systems and quality assurance for Kanalflakt, Inc .—a heating and air product manufacturer in Bouctouche, New Brunswick, Canada—has found this to be true in his experiences as a manager.

“This can eventually lead to some degree of demoralization. To remedy this, I have often taken the project team out to lunch to get them out of the office and out of the day-to-day tasks of the project,” he said. “There, I leisurely try to reiterate the strategic goal of completing such a project. For instance, when we were developing a new product and the marketing manager was in the office daily to get a project update, many employees started to feel resentment toward him. By taking them out and putting the project in perspective and explaining how the new product would enable us to situate ourselves in new markets, employees felt re-energized.”

Burnt out, undervalued
Goulet also noted that when things get too hectic, employees begin feeling unappreciated, like the company sees them as just another piece of equipment.

How did he cope with these morale problems? “As the manager, I made a particular effort to stave off any urgent work that wasn’t really important or critical to the immediate success of the company,” Goulet said. “Also, preventing or limiting people from other company functions to walk up to the employees and ask them for ‘just a little help with something’ helped.”

Hoffman underscored the fact that burnout can take its toll on employees who perceive that they’re undervalued. He has found that by rotating employees into various jobs, they feel continually stimulated and challenged, and they can better relate to their co-workers.

“It makes them appreciate the secretary’s job more. As long as they are not locked into one thing, the burnout potential is low,” Hoffman said. “Also, we try to make sure that when it is time to go home, we go home. Forced overtime degrades the mind. We believe in an ‘off at five’ policy. We usually go over by a bit, but not much. When we do need to work odd hours, no one seems to mind much.”

Follow the leader
Goulet added that it’s important for a manager to lead by example.

“If employees see you running around the office at a hectic pace, it invariably puts more pressure on them,” he noted. “Project a sense of urgency but not of panic. Remember, they are looking to you for guidance and support.”

Steve Theissen, owner of T-Sun Computers—a full-service IT shop in southwestern Oregon—agreed that it’s better to provide a calming influence and encourage employees to step back from the situation for a moment.

“It’s a real common problem, especially with the younger techs,” he said. “They need to just get things in perspective, start going through the numbers, eliminate this problem, then that problem, down to ‘What’s the real issue here and let’s solve it.’”

RH Consulting’s Hoffman said the bottom line is keeping employees satisfied with their work situation.

“If they’re kept happy, and a manager pays attention, you tend not to have many problems,” he said. “Once you stop noticing what is happening, then the employees start feeling ignored, and things go downhill from there.”
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