Staff Alert

CIOs who think there’s no real threat of turnover in tough IT times and put off dealing with the situation may be in for a rude awakening even sooner than the highly anticipated spending turnaround

A Familiar Feeling

High stress and heavy workloads are nothing new to IT; night and weekend work has been the norm for years. "It's an occupational hazard," says Rick Skinner, CIO of the Oregon division of $US3.3 billion Providence Health System. "IT staffs are responsible not only for keeping current systems and infrastructure running, but they're also responsible for a whole host of new projects. Some are planned, budgeted and scheduled, and some come out of left field with no budget, no schedule and only a fuzzy idea of the deliverables. That kind of environment is by nature high stress."

But if 70-hour workweeks somehow became the norm in the best of times, the hours being clocked by IT workers today - with budgets stretched and expectations on the rise - are potentially unbearable. "Like every other IS organisation out there, we're suffering from an incredible amount of demand. CEOs and CFOs want additional services, but they want it done for less," says Bruce Reirden, vice president and CIO of the Care New England group of hospitals. "So ultimately as CIOs, we're requesting people to work more just to get the jobs out the door. I couldn't even tell you what the average workweek is like here. Some weeks it's higher, some weeks lower. But it's always in excess of what people are scheduled for."

Linda Pittenger, CEO of People3, Gartner's HR consulting group, says that overburdening staffs is risky. "It can mean costs related to absenteeism and productivity decreases because people are depressed, or it can increase productivity but also increase the risk of burnout because people are working harder to keep their jobs," she explains.

Another downside to the current IT staffing environment is a decrease in innovation and a focus on the individual rather than the team. "In times like these people become risk averse. They don't want to share new ideas because there's no money in it," Pittenger says. "And what if the idea is bad? Do I want to be the guy who raises his hand and says we should do this, and then it fails?"

Some CIOs insert research opportunities, even modest ones, into their staff schedules as a way of developing staff skills - and relieving some of the workaday pressure. At Electronic Arts, a $US1.7 billion computer game maker, CIO Marc West insists his employees participate in niche R&D teams looking at where the business might be headed. "We run a pretty intense environment," he says. "But we ask employees to dedicate these very, very narrow time slices to R&D. They give up an hour a week, but it gives them something positive to engage in. As a result, they find more time for other things and are better able to prioritise the work at hand." West admits the R&D time can get sacrificed. About 15 per cent of the time (when things are really crazy), the teams meet for an hour every two weeks. And he will extend the time lines for ongoing R&D projects.

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