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All IT workers want is time off

February 24, 1999
Web posted at: 8:38 p.m. EST (0138 GMT)

by Mary Brandel

(IDG) -- Two very different information technology professionals; two very different attitudes about balancing work and time off. Increasingly, however, it's the Weissenbuehlers of the world whose needs and desires companies must respond to. That is, if they want to sustain or improve their retention rates.

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"Right up there with salary is time off with families," says Diane Thom, human resources manager at Comerica Inc. in Auburn Hills, Mich. Comerica surveyed employees three years ago and instituted policies such as a 9/80 program to soothe the ruffled feathers of the overworked. "I just think the whole attitude in life today is that people want more time off," says Donald Schuman, vice president of information services at Ace Hardware Corp. in Oak Brook, Ill.

Exacerbating this general change in attitude is the industry's overdemand and undersupply of technical talent, according to Mark Polansky, managing director of the IT practice at New York-based Korn/Ferry International. Add to that the increased demand for IT projects, plus year 2000 and electronic-commerce projects, and you've got a "really stressed-out situation," Polansky says.

In addition to retention bonuses and other goodies thrown at qualified IT people, more companies are offering enticements such as extra personal time and "a general accommodation to give-and-take," Polansky says. For example, if an employee endures grueling hours on an important project, he might be rewarded with three days' vacation.

That's the case at Ace Hardware -- up to a point. "We're willing to give programmers comp time or paid overtime," Schuman says. However, because of the skills shortage, "we're tending to want to pay them for overtime rather than with comp time," he adds.

But many workers would rather get the time than the money. "We've seen people walk away from significant bonuses rather than deal with the continued stress of long hours," says David Dell, research director at The Concours Group, a consulting firm in Kingwood, Texas. And at Coors, where approximately 60% of employees take advantage of the 9/80 program, workers also can buy up to a week's worth of extra vacation time.

At Ace, newer employees with just two weeks' vacation have requested deductions from their paychecks that go toward extra days off. "We can bank holidays and vacation days and put the money in a savings account. But I'd rather take the days," says Chris Deboo, manager of the corporate IT operations and networks at Ace.

Ironically, in Deboo's case, it's flexible hours and telecommuting that have formed her attitude. Ever since her first child was born, "my work schedule has changed dramatically," she says. Although she still logs many hours, less of it is in the office and more is at home, where she has E-mail and voice-mail capabilities.

Because it has gotten more difficult to separate work from home, "I really need the mental break of vacation, that feeling of, 'I'm out of here,'" Deboo says. Once on vacation, Deboo says she has to exhibit some real discipline not to check back with the office. "On my last vacation it was a chore, but I didn't even log on to check E-mail. Of course, I had 100 E-mails when I got back into the office," she says.

Companies that have increased time-off opportunities don't attribute their better retention rates to these practices. But with turnover numbers as low as Coors' (less than 5%) and Sears' (6%), vs. industry averages of anywhere from 12% to 20%, you have to wonder. "A good strategy for dealing with the personal-time needs of employees can certainly increase retention and improve recruiting batting averages," Dell says.

Time is on my side (Yes it is)

What if your company doesn't have any formal policies in place to give employees flexibility or extra time off? Or maybe you feel you aren't able to clear your desk in order to get the vacation time you need? In those cases, take a hard look at how you prioritize your work. "I would ask the question, 'Am I really spending all my time on the most important things the organization is trying to focus on, or am I off on some tangent?'" says Bob Uhrina, manager of Internet-related systems at Sears.

"If the management team doesn't recognize the amount of effort you're putting in, establish what is important, put it on paper and agree on it," Uhrina says.

Often, information technology managers aren't fully aware of what flexibility is available inside the organization, says David Dell, research director at The Concours Group. So you may need to research what arrangements are available to meet your individual needs.

Many employees simply expect the company to be as flexible with its time as they are with theirs. "I get calls at 2 in the morning, and if something's broken, I don't leave until it's fixed," says Drew DeNardo, a project manager at at Solo Cup Co. in Urbana, Ill. DeNardo recently earned a few extra vacation days because of a particularly grueling November spent integrating the systems of a newly merged company.

But no one is going to balance work and life for you. "You have to determine what is important -- whether it's your boss or some customer that says, 'How dare you not spend 20 hours of extra time on my problem?'" says Matt Weissenbuehler, project manager at Coors. "Is this truly a situation where you have to work, or is someone going off the deep end? You have to be thick-skinned about it."

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