Some use e-mail to broadcast a “Thought For The Day.” Others try gag gifts or cash bonuses. And some companies motivate their employees with full-blown career planning.

Regardless of your approach, IT managers must strike a delicate balance when trying to motivate staff. On one side is the effective, encouraging, humanistic kind of supervisor who wants to engage and coach. On the other end is the company man whose warmed-over affirmations diminish him to little more than a corporate cheerleader.

IT executives and managers from companies of all sizes say they rely on a variety of techniques and approaches to help motivate their people, make the work place a little more human, and encourage the best possible results—an especially challenging duty in the stark backdrop of the current economy.

Here are a number of proven, long-term motivational techniques that you can use to stem the tide of bad morale and resignations.

Looking toward the future
It’s shortsighted to try to motivate staff and offer encouragement only in tough times like these, according to one large enterprise. “We’ve concentrated on building a culture of caring and recognition on an ongoing basis. So even when times are tough, there’s no need to turn it on or off because of the trust that you’ve demonstrated and built over time,” says Stephanie Hampton, a spokeswoman for Host Marriott Corp. in Bethesda, MD. “In good times, it’s great to have those things, but in bad times it’s even more important.”

And IT management also needs to consider what will happen with a disgruntled workforce when the economy starts to improve. “The number one reason people leave jobs is a bad manager or a lack of opportunity—it’s rarely about money and almost always about quality of life,” says Marc Pramuk, senior analyst for human resources and staffing services at International Data Corp. in Framingham, MA.

In fact, according to Pramuk, one of the biggest personnel issues that companies are concerned with is the impact of an economic recovery on turnover. As in other large industry sectors such as financial services and healthcare, IT professionals have skills that transfer easily to other employers. That makes it all the more important to move now to improve retention and keep employees motivated.

Bring out your best
Karen Martus, IT operations manager for Eastern Mountain Sports Inc. of Peterborough, NH, says that rewards with a light touch have proven effective for her. After a recent challenging project was completed, Martus gave an employee a t-shirt depicting a beaver sitting on a pile of wood, inscribed with “One Dam Project After Another.”

Carfax Inc., the online car buying and vehicle search Web site based in Fairfax, VA, has instituted a “Stars” program, which, unlike many motivational initiatives, works by employees nominating one another for actions or efforts that fed corporate objectives. Carfax CTO David Silversmith says that results such as better sales, improved response times, or greater investment returns can earn employees recognition in the program. The Carfax Stars are then posted on the company intranet and featured prominently on 50-inch plasma screens at company locations in Virginia and Missouri.

“In prior years, we did a lot of on-the-spot bonuses or impromptu lunches, but it got hard to maintain, especially as managers turned over or were traveling,” Silversmith says. “The Stars program works well and is self-sustaining because it’s peer recognition, which is often better than manager recognition.”

“Time for us to talk”
Many IT staff want more than prizes or recognition—they want advancement, promotion, and new opportunities. But for most staff, there aren’t any new IT jobs inside an enterprise, even if the manager wanted to promote them. That scenario might seem bleak, but that’s actually the best time to start a conversation about career planning, with an eye toward creating a longer-term action plan. And most IT managers agree that the conversation must be ongoing—it can’t be a one-time event if it’s really going to produce good results.

“That conversation will initially result in a certain amount of skepticism from employees because it’s new,” says IDC’s Pramuk. “But by having that conversation, you’re preparing the employee for when the opportunity does arise, [so that he or she is] plug-and-play and ready to hit the ground running.”

Taking those steps now can help address retention and morale and add to the department’s overall skill level. Plus, this method fits in with a more holistic approach that some companies are using as a motivational strategy. Ford Motor Co. in Detroit has instituted its Competency Center, which assists employees throughout its hierarchy with career planning, training and development, and balancing personal and professional demands.

“We know there are certain competencies required to function well in the job, but there are also interpersonal skills, building credibility, and using knowledge and methods,” says Jeremy Seligman, manager of IT strategy and competency development for Ford’s IT Center of Excellence. “We’ve created a career development framework. To build the individual, in turn, builds the capabilities of the organization.”

Seligman notes a common conflict that arises when employees have to choose between fulfilling their job requirements and going to training. To circumvent this, Ford made the successful completion of that individual’s “learning plan” part of the employee’s performance review. But the inspired part was also making it part of the supervisor’s performance review as well. “Managers then have an incentive to support their people in achieving on their learning plans,” Seligman says.

Map it out
Instituting such extensive training, development, and career planning as Ford’s is not an option for all companies. But any company that expects to keep its employees motivated better have clear-cut, explicitly communicated objectives against which all departments—not just IT—can measure themselves.

Silversmith of Carfax carries in his wallet a laminated card with the company’s annual objectives on it. From those objectives, Silversmith devises a corporate roadmap that spells out objectives and target dates. All subsequent projects must then be tied to a corporate goal. So if someone makes a product request, submits an idea, or wants a report from the Carfax data warehouse, he or she must connect the dots to a corporate goal using a link on the company’s intranet.

From there, Silversmith creates departmental roadmaps for IT and individual roadmaps for each department member. Many of the metrics and goals are publicized on the intranet, which is useful for a number of reasons, according to Silverstein. First it keeps them uppermost in the IT staff’s consciousness. And since goals from other departments are also published, IT can see it’s not being held to a higher standard than others in the company. Call it a perspective-building exercise, wrapped in the guise of motivation building.

Ford takes a slightly different approach with the same goal of aligning individual behavior with corporate goals. Its Competency Center has a variety of processes that everyone must undergo, which can prove extremely valuable to employees who have never really thought about their work life in terms of a career.

Seligman points to the example of one Ford employee who reluctantly went to his first few Competency Center appointments. It took very little time for him to have his first coaching session, create a portfolio of skills and interests, build a learning plan and commit to specific follow-up measures. Not much later, he e-mailed his supervisor and said it was the best single example in all his time at the Ford Motor Co. of someone caring about him and his development, Seligman says.

For another Ford employee, just the act of going through the assessment, as painstaking as it was, gave her a sense of what she was really interested in for the very first time. “So rather than just thinking about her next job, she began to build a different construct—a career and a path, and two steps ahead is the chance to be a senior architect,” Seligman says. The Competency Center helps create careers that are more than a series of random occurrences that may or may not happen, he adds.

“Companies balk because they think this is going to cost them money, but it’s really about having a conversation and the best one to have is about career goals,” said IDC’s Pramuk. “The way to retain people is to maximize the alignment between how a company’s talent needs change and how an employee’s career needs change. You want to keep them as parallel and synchronized as possible.”