Everyone’s worried about the great resignation but the malaise affecting IT workers has deeper roots than the changes brought about by the pandemic. CIOs need to rethink their staff retention strategy.

While every C-suite executive is concerned about the Great Resignation affecting their department, it is likely to be the CIO who is most concerned about staff churn. While the Covid-19 pandemic led to many workers rethinking their work-life balance and opting for greater flexibility or going entirely freelance, the attitude of IT workers has deeper roots.

A long-term skills shortage has meant IT workers can move jobs easily, often changing employers with each project, as if they were freelancers. Evidence suggests that the situation is getting worse, with Microsoft estimating that by 2025, the UK will have a need for 3 million technology jobs. Of this, 1,998,177 will be needed in the UK alone for software development with a current workforce of 267,522. This poses a major threat to organisational stability.

But CIOs are not powerless. A human-centric working culture can improve retention and, meanwhile, a new talent supply model – elastic teams – can be transformative for staffing projects. CIOs must rethink their strategies accordingly.

Time for workplace flexibility

Research from Gartner has found that only 29% of IT workers have a ‘high’ intent to stay with their current employer, which is more than 10% lower than for non-IT employees. The situation varies with age. IT workers under 30 are two-and-a-half times likely to stay with their current employer than those over 50, for example.

There are regional differences, too. Only a fifth of IT workers in Asia (19.6%) plan to stay with their present employer, well below the global average. Europe is the region with the greatest likelihood of retention but, with four out of 10 IT workers (38.8%) having a high intent to stay, the picture there is hardly encouraging.

Gartner’s Graham Waller warned CIOs that “a huge chunk of their workforce is at risk”. He added: “CIOs may need to advocate for more flexibility in work design than the rest of the enterprise, as IT employees are more likely to leave, in greater demand and more adept at remote working than most other employees.”

Future teams will be asynchronous

Greater flexibility and more human-centric work policies have been shown to increase performance and reduce attrition. 

For example, in a 2021 Gartner survey of 3,000 employees across a range of industries, functions and geographies, 65% of IT employees said that they would be more likely to stay at an organisation that allowed them to work flexibly.

Technology has broken down the idea that work must be done in a central location that every employee attends during the same hours. 

Work can be done just as effectively by asynchronous teams, working at the time that suits them best. This allows companies to get the best from people who have caring commitments, disabilities that would prevent them travelling to an office, or who simply work best at unusual times of day.

Indeed, project teams don’t even need to be in the same time zone. Meetings can take place virtually, as everyone has learned over the last couple of years, or be replaced entirely by modern collaboration tools. 

Distributed decision-making and creative thinking is a relatively new concept but one that is here to stay. More senior executives, who started their careers in a different era, need to embrace this change, rather than resist it.

Creating a meaningful workplace 

“CIOs who adopt a human-centric work design will out-hire, out-retain and out-perform those that revert back to industrial-era work paradigms,” said Mr Waller. Crucially that does not mean ‘one size fits all’. Some staff might prefer being office-based, particularly younger workers who may not have space for a home office. Others will want to be in the office some of the time. That means the office must work for them.

That doesn’t mean introducing table football, slides between floors and pizza parties. Workplace enhancements need to be meaningful. That might mean providing a range of spaces to accommodate different work modes, from silent focus to group brainstorms. 

Or it might require simple technology that smooths the office experience by making it quick and easy to book a hot desk or a meeting room. It could even mean offering dry cleaning collection or grocery deliveries.

[According to McKinsey], the most talented workers in highly complex occupations, such as software developers, are up to eight times more productive than the average worker. That provides a strong incentive to retain those people, who are also the ones best able to move elsewhere. 

CIOs should take a data-driven approach to identifying their most valuable workers and tailor working cultures and policies to them.

A new way to source talent

The workplace culture has to change but that isn’t the only solution available to CIOs. A growing trend is for elastic teams – pools of highly talented freelancers who can be hired on a project basis. These are often organised into private talent clouds that attract the best talent from all over the world, ensure they meet the required skill level, handle project management and keep the team members happy.

Drawing on these skills removes the need for the CIO to nurture talent over the long term and find ways to retain them. Instead, they get high-quality work on a project-by-project basis, while the in-house team keeps the everyday tasks running. It’s a model that sits well alongside an enhanced working culture.

The reality is that, while human-centric workplaces are essential, it is also the case that IT in particular is entering an ‘open talent’ era. Your top team members might not work for you anymore – and that does not need to be a bad thing. The future is a mix of staff, freelancers, contractors and private talent clouds.

Leading organisations are already adopting these approaches to IT staffing. The changes are here to stay and CIOs that want to compete must be open to change. Flexibility is the new normal.

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