By Imtishan Giado
Regional enterprises are fast realising that the pool of available IT talent is no longer as deep as it used to be - and with the region's rising inflation, keeping staff onboard isn't easy either. Imthishan Giado looks at how CIOs can improve their working environments for prospective and present employees.
Regional enterprises are fast realising that the pool of available IT talent is no longer as deep as it used to be - and with the region's rising inflation, keeping staff onboard isn't easy either.
Imthishan Giado looks at how CIOs can improve their working environments for prospective and present employees.
If I look across the IT spectrum, people who are paying the most may in the short term attract people who are currently unhappy in their jobs but they do not have the highest retention rates – those people are still looking for jobs.
In a region wracked by a recent wave of crippling inflation, it has never been more important to find new and innovative ways of attracting staff to your organisation, and then providing a dynamic, productive and rewarding environment with strong career progression so that they remain there.
While the salaries on offer have traditionally been a bone of contention, it seems that almost every day, a new survey emerges showing that pay is not keeping pace with inflationary pressures.
Under these circumstances, CIOs are also all too aware that existing employees are easy prey for roving headhunters from larger or better bankrolled regional enterprises.
But the CIO, under pressure from the boardroom to reduce expenditure, is often unable to match the packages available elsewhere in the market.
In this instance, says Ruth Fletcher, director of recruitment consultancy Indigo ICT, companies should start thinking beyond offering exorbitant salaries as a means of attracting new staff - at least, if they want these hires to stay.
"Some of the strongest brands and teams that we see in the marketplace are not the teams that are paying the highest salary.
If I look across the IT spectrum, people who are paying the most may in the short term attract people who are currently unhappy in their jobs but they do not have the highest retention rates - those people are still looking for jobs," she reveals.
The problem is that many managers believe salaries are the only barometer by which they can judge if existing staff are happy, or if prospective employees want to join their organisation.
Nagarajan Thangaradhna, IT manager for Qatar's Abdullah Abdulghani and Bros, believes this mindset reduces the manager to nothing more than a relay mechanism between the boardroom and the IT workforce.
"In the 80s and 90s, the manager was like a post-box - he'd take instructions from his bosses, pass it on to the subordinates and see that it's done on the scheduled date and time."
"Those techniques do not work today. My door is always open and at the same time I visit their desks."
"I also conduct regular meetings where staff can speak openly - if they feel their opinions count, they feel much better. Though it's difficult to spend time with everyone on a daily basis, I still try to keep touch with them on a personal level."
"With the confidence level I create, they know they can always come to me and lean on my shoulder for advice, whether work-related or personal," says AAB's Nagarajan.
While Nagarajan works to ensure employees feel relaxed in the work environment, Bassem Aboukhater, regional IT director at Leo Burnett Dubai takes the concept one step further - he defines the ability to have fun as one of the core requirements for anyone who wishes to work for him.
If you're not having fun, you probably shouldn't be here. This is because we're all about creativity and that requires you to relax and be
happy in your skin.
"At the end of the day, we don't have a product to sell except the consultancy, the know-how and the ideas of our people."
"What I encourage the guys to do is to get involved in the business more than just IT."
You can get any IT person who knows a lot of technical things, but at the end of the day you have to know what your business is all about.
"Coming up with an initiative that helps strengthen the relationship with the client is more important for me than day to day support which anybody can do," he continues.
Transparency itself is a huge motivator and isn’t just about ratings and performance. It's about having honest discussions on capability and feedback.
While it's quite easy to suggest that CIOs should be more open and encouraging with employees, provide growth opportunities and reward fresh thinking, it's quite difficult to see if these steps are actually fostering loyalty among employees or making the company more attractive to prospective talent.
Vineet Chhatwal, managing consultant for PA Consulting's Global Business Transformation Group suggests that there are several measures to check how enterprise employees are responding to good management.
"One, CIOs can use satisfaction surveys to measure and drive their behaviour. The second is around softer issues which are obviously harder to measure."
"I know of companies that have implemented significant alternate channels for people to air their views rather than just through their line manager, things like having a mentor - not directly related to your job - in the organisation that you can speak to."
"The third is your retention rate, which is a very hard measure of how satisfied your people are and what are the specific reasons why people are leaving," says Chhatwal.
Indigo's Fletcher says that from her HR perspective, an environment where the employees feel appreciated is easy to detect.
"When we meet clients, if we don't see their people out in the market looking for jobs or don't receive their CV, it's a good indication that they've got a happy workforce," she says.
Fletcher explains that candidates for IT positions are typically motivated by one of three things - money, job satisfaction or career advancement. Employers that understand which one of these motivates their staff are better equipped to handle the resultant issues.
"I don't think any employer in this market can get away with not being competitive with regards to money. They don't have to be the top payer, but they do need to make sure that their pay is market rate."
"In terms of job satisfaction, is there a productive work environment where employees are encouraged, motivated, have one on one time with managers, have an appraisal system which monitors performance, are set clear objectives, have the job description expectations clearly outlined at the very beginning?"
"In terms of careers and skill training, are you as an employer offering training incentives and buying your employees in with accelerated promotions?" she asks.
Discussing ways to incentivise the workforce, Chhatwal says that Nagarajan's individual approach can have strong results: "Transparency itself is a huge motivator and isn't just about ratings and performance."
"It's about having honest discussions on capability and feedback, not just one-way traffic. That's a big motivator - a senior guy sitting with them, seeking feedback."
"This can be tough for a lot of senior guys, because they sometimes believe taking feedback might completely undermine them."
Many unpopular CIOs faced with flagging morale in the office end up turning to the somewhat hackneyed staff outing to boost team spirits. However, Chhatwal cautions that this approach rarely has results.
For a CIO who is seen to be a negative person, one outing is not going to change that impression. People come to it because they have to, rather than because they want to.
"The key essentially again, is that you have to create this environment in which people feel wanted and cared for. In terms of taking people out, it shouldn't be only social, but has to have some content related discussion."
Often you will not get employees complain, 'I did not get this much,' but it would always be relative to someone else. If they do find out you are being treated a certain way in spite of getting an equal rating in your appraisal, disenchantment starts to set in.
"The CIO has to actually step out of his mould and ensure people contribute. We've facilitated a lot of off-sites where a big outcome at the end is not about what we achieved in terms of strategy. There might not have been brilliant insights, but the leadership team feels a lot better working with each other and that, in my view is a far longer term win," says Chhatwal.
While some CIOs make efforts to mend fences with their staff, others remain blissfully oblivious to the existence of dissent. Chhatwal says discontent can be difficult to detect.
"There are times when it's subtle and you can sense it in the team meetings and the kind of output that's coming out. You'd typically see a productive employee in meetings suddenly becoming negative and challenging."
"You would start to see that pretty early on in a small team which typically tends to be more close, open and frank. In bigger IT departments, the CIO has to rely on his second and third layer of management to pick these hints and the process is a little more formalised.
"If you start noticing these negative indicators, there are other subtle measures that you can watch out for, such as dropping punctuality levels. It's better in those cases to take them very seriously, be more conservative, assume the worst case scenario and address it head on rather than thinking you'll wait and watch. Sometimes if you catch it early enough, you can start to address it," explains Chhatwal.
Unsurprisingly, the main reason for job dissatisfaction in the region is that which is at the root of all evil - money. But, as Chhatwal notes, it's not usually about not having enough money - it's about not getting the same amount that everyone else is.
"I've seen organisations where people throughout the year are told they're fantastic and get excellent ratings in the appraisal, but where the connect between the rating and what they actually get in monetary rewards or benefits in terms of progression and so on are not in line."
"That is the single biggest factor which puts people off, because you've never got the feedback that you're doing something wrong and had the opportunity to rectify it."
"Often, however, you will not see employees complain, ‘I did not get this much,' but it would be always relative to someone else. If they do find out you are being treated a certain way in spite of getting an equal rating in your appraisal, disenchantment starts to set in."
"If you can maintain equity and transparency, that is a big plus where retention is concerned," he says.
AAB's Nagarajan explains the inherent difficulty in determining IT payscales: "We always see that the salaries and payscales are all kept confidential, but it's a little difficult. Some IT staff earn more than employees in other departments or even some managers."
"I use external consultants to determine packages, till I can get on board and justify that this position is required and offered at market standard.
You can never match with the market standards but you can at least provide the environment and other things to match the market.
Apart from salaries, the other part of the productivity equation is career advancement - which, as Leo Burnett's Aboukhater explains, can be difficult in IT.
"It's not as fast as client servicing because the IT department is around seven or eight guys, so moving up is not going to going to happen in a year. In fact, many opportunities don't present themselves till several years later."
"I try to manage expectations and tell the guys that they have to stay at least two or three years in a particular position, by showing them a career path," he says.
Fletcher says that even this scenario is still ripe with possible opportunities: "Say you have a department with fewer openings. It's then about the individual saying, 'what can I learn from this department? What projects am I being deployed on? What training can I get put on?' It's about learning as much as you can - and then, if there's no opportunity, saying 'it's time to take those skillsets elsewhere'.
"People have huge expectations here in terms of career acceleration. In the UK, US or Europe, you have a very well articulated, usually graded, system whereby you don't get accelerated beyond a role unless you've spent at least 18 months to two years in it, achieving specific objectives."
"Whereas here, people are in such a rush to get the next stage, and enterprises feel bullied to provide that kind of career acceleration," says Fletcher.
Aboukhater provides a counterpoint, saying that CIOs often provide employees with the tools for career advancement: "There was a case where I had a person, who wanted to grow, and I gave him opportunities to, but he never took the initiative."
"If you're a helpdesk support guy and you'd like to become a system administrator, I'll provide you with the training and the opportunity to show me what you can do. But if I give you five days worth of training, and they end up expiring because you don't use them, well hey, I can lead the horse to the water but I can't make it drink."
Fletcher explains that CIOs should not be held to ransom by a subset of employees who want to leave for better wages elsewhere: "If an employee is coming to you with a letter that says, 'I have been offered this much by another employer,' what they're looking to you to do is acknowledge that they have a skillset that is marketable."
For CIOs, the manner in which employees depart can also be a source of tension. Those who feel they have treated unfairly may well use the notice period to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt among the remaining staff members.
Chhatwal says enterprises should be prepared for this eventuality.
"If you know that an employee is disgruntled and can actually cause damage, it's best to cut them loose as soon as you can, speed up the exit process, settle what you need to. Some companies say, 'sit at home, we'll continue to pay your salary, but we won't let you off'."
"But you can't prevent them speaking to other employees outside work hours. So it's best to cut them loose quickly and cleanly. It's more expensive if you keep them hanging on," he cautions.
Ultimately, concludes Fletcher, how an employee leaves a workplace is a mark of the IT manager's skill in managing his team.
"You don't want to keep everyone in your organisation, ad infinitum. Churn is good and positive if managed in the right way. If people feel like they have contributed to the organisation they have worked with and conversely, the organisation feels like they have benefited from the tenure of that individual, it can be a very positive thing moving that individual on towards the next step in their career."