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Boosting morale pays off for everyone

Published on January 25, 2002
on TechRepublic.Com

Low morale among technology staff is likely epidemic today, thanks to years of layoffs, extended work schedules, declining profits, cancelled projects, and reduced perks due to tightened budgets.

While a poor attitude can be evident--a lack of employee enthusiasm and initiative are prime symptoms--it could also be so ingrained that tech leaders don’t even notice how far staff morale, and productivity, has fallen.

Yet, according to Jon Nelson, a 20-year tech leader who now spearheads strategic direction and plans for a major hardware distribution corporation based in Arizona, it’s never too late to reverse the low-morale trend. The first step, Nelson said, is to assess a staff’s morale level and then take steps to alleviate the problem, from obvious methods, such as using stronger communication tactics and feedback mechanisms, to those requiring much more work, such as team-building exercises and creating custom-made "badge of honor" programs.

How to spot poor morale

Morale issues are usually easy for an attentive department head to spot, said Nelson. "When people aren’t smiling, something’s wrong. It’s that simple. If your people aren’t happy to be coming to work, you’ve got work to do."

Typically, spirits droop when techies believe their efforts and accomplishments are not appreciated. It’s not about money--it's about personal contributions to a company’s strategies. Staff members with low morale believe no one cares, or wants to hear, their input and suggestions. A clear sign that job morale is low is that employees have lost their interest in what’s happening in the industry and lost their passion for what’s possible with technology.

This often occurs, said Nelson, when IT professionals become disconnected from the company’s mission, which can happen when employees are forced to focus solely on implementing projects or solving immediate problems.

"There’s a tendency for IT to be tactical, not strategic," said Nelson. "So essentially, they feel like they’re garbagemen." Programmers only get words of appreciation when they’re cleaning up messy code, for instance, he added. This same staff should be envisioning and creating future solutions and strategic projects, he advised.

Why you need a morale program

Some of Nelson’s morale-building ideas come from a great, great uncle who was a senior officer in the First Wisconsin Volunteers battalion during the U.S. Civil War. (Nelson's own military career included a stint with the Department of Defense, where he first got a taste of computer-related work, and a Special Forces post. Nelson retired from the military in 1990.)

"My great, great uncle had the challenge of taking Irish miners, Swedish and Norwegian loggers, German and Scottish farmers, and English shopkeepers and melding them, very quickly, into a strong and loyal force," he explained, adding that it was done by using two powerful symbols that became synonymous with his uncle's military unit. One was the battalion’s black hats, from which they took their name, the Wisconsin Black-hats. The second was a bald eagle that perched on a flag standard high above battles.

Nelson borrowed the idea of using symbols when he designed arm patches that he later had professionally embroidered for his team members. Though not mandatory, many team members do wear the badge as a sign of pride for working on individual technology teams, explained Nelson.

Keep teams small

Another of Nelson's morale-building approaches involves creating and sustaining a strong team unit. Teams should have no more than five or six people, as that's an optimal size for creating strong relationships, explained Nelson.

To foster team spirit, Nelson encourages IT staffers to share ideas, new techniques, or developments in informal meeting sessions. A good approach is doing brown-bag lunches and inviting someone to present a new idea or technology.

If done correctly, and consistently, team sharing builds both cohesiveness and skills improvement. In establishing his teams, Nelson looks for common interests and skill sets, as both play a strong part in the staff training approach he uses.

Cross-training can spur morale

Cross-training not only improves skill sets, said Nelson, but also can strengthen morale by building unity. By learning skills outside their current focus, individuals can study and experiment with new methods and even technology months before a company starts a related project, explained Nelson.

Team members should develop at least a 50 percent proficiency in an additional skill, which benefits both the employee's skill level and the IT unit overall. Cross-trained teams can work staggered schedules and provide more support in emergency situations, and most importantly for morale concerns, being a part of such a team can prevent burnout.

Cross-training yields "aggressive, well-rested assets across all critical skills at all times," said Nelson. He also added that while a cross-training environment instigates a natural competitiveness in staffers to keep up with their peers, this is not a negative factor. Many employees, said Nelson, will even tend to spend personal time to increase skill sets "to be an asset to the rest."

Sometimes, just saying 'no' sparks better morale

One of Nelson's morale-boosting tactics may not go over very well with other business unit leaders or the CEO: standing up to unrealistic project demands.

CIOs and tech managers are often directed to push staff to meet very tight and frustrating deadlines. But Nelson said he won't pressure his staff to meet such impossible deadlines, as it can quickly lead to staff burnout and the erosion of a tech team's unity. IT leaders need to draw a line early on, even if (it) means forestalling projects, to avoid "slave- driving people," he said.

"People can't be replaced easily. It may take months and months to replace someone, but it takes many more months to replace the unit cohesion of a team."

How can you tell if morale is getting better?

There are several ways to measure whether new morale programs and initiatives are working. A good sign is a drop in sick days and absenteeism. Another is increased productivity and work quality improvement. A lower turnover rate is an obvious sign that people are enjoying their jobs.

The best measurement for Nelson is that many former employees jump at the opportunity to work with him again.

"I am in constant touch— across the globe— with most of them. I am godfather to two former employees' children. They are all my very good and trusted friends," he said.

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david southgate
writing for living.