Last year a string of kidnap incidents rocked the Auckland division of an ICT company. The incidents were never reported in the mainstream media. The victims: Potted sunflower plants. Steven Graham, Auckland general manager of Fronde Synergy, says the staff were given sunflower seeds and were told the person who grew the tallest plant would get a prize.
Soon, strange things befell some plants. Graham's plant died, for instance. A staff member gave him another plant. When it grew, it did not resemble a sunflower — he was given a pumpkin, literally.
Plants were being "kidnapped", and ransom notes found all over the office. One note read: "We have the plant. We will kill the flower unless you give us US$50,000. Leave the cash by Monday... or the plant gets it."
"It was all in the spirit of fun," says Graham. "We want this to be a great place to work."
More important, he says, is the impact it had on the staff morale. He says during the four months the contest was on, the office achieved its highest revenue targets since it began operating eight years ago.
Recently, after the company organised a screening for staff and clients of the movie on climate change An Inconvenient Truth, Graham announced it will subsidise 50 per cent of staff expenses for public transport to work.
"Little things like these make a difference," he states. "We are in the people business and professional services. We practice what we preach, not because it is the right thing to do but it is the kind of culture that we have."
Indeed, combining traditional with out of the box experiences for employees is nothing new. But the ongoing concern over keeping top staff amidst a tight market means companies are exerting more effort in this area these days.
Grant Burley, director of recruitment firm absoluteIT, says "perks, incentives and ideas" employers have been offering in the past two years range from more flexible work arrangements, to increasing days for vacation leaves as employees reach certain milestones.
One common incentive is providing dial-up access so staff can work from home. "This is an especially good benefit if there is a long commute involved," says Burley. This also expands the company's pool of candidates because staff from Hamilton, for instance, can work in Auckland. "Three days in the office and two days at home goes a long way to helping candidates tackle the commute."
Or, a company can offer a monthly petrol allowance of $250. Some companies, on the other hand, provide a laptop as opposed to a desktop. "If they haven't got a PC at home this is a great benefit coupled with remote access." Burley adds some companies provide five-weeks leave when an employee has been with the company for a year, and this increases to six weeks leave on the second year.
Talgentra, an Auckland software company, holds regular social events for staff, and keeps an "open position" on sabbaticals.
"We have a very active social group", says general manager James Docking. Recently, the company hired a bar for a "Spanish fiesta" for staff. The company also has a membership to the gym across the road from its office in Ponsonby, Auckland.
As for staff who want to go on sabbatical leave, Docking says, "We don't terminate them. We give them leave without pay for an extended period so they can do their international travel and enjoy themselves knowing they have a job to come back to."
For Docking, these measures are critical to staff retention. "We have a big base of young people, probably a lot more than most companies, so we have more [of a] challenge in keeping the big group happy.
"As a team, we look across the board. How do we keep these people involved in the business and enjoying the business? It is a tough business, whereas we always ask people to work evenings and weekends."
Peter Phillips, national service delivery manager of Computer Concepts, says its Christchurch location is one of the attractions for staff. "Many of the applicants have done the one to two-hour daily commute, jumped from one company to the other and chased the big money. While the South Island traditionally pays less than our North Island cousins, the cost of living is lower and the day to day stress tends to be less," he says. "Not recognised enough, is also the opportunity to work on large scale IT solutions. There are many innovative and challenging companies based here that IT specialists can apply their skills to."
Phillips, however, credits the emphasis on "cultural fit" for the company's enviable high staff retention rate. Once it has hired a staff member, he says the company is flexible on how it utilises their skills. If a person has a passion in one particular area and it is something that Computer Concepts is involved in, it will work with the staff to train or develop them for that role. "Over the years, we have found staff that have left us have gone on to pursue interests outside of IT. We could count on one hand the number of staff that have left to join competitors in our operating areas."
For Diane Christensen, HR manager for EDS New Zealand, one of the company's goals is to be seen as a large employer with good career development opportunities and able to offer an interesting work environment. "There has been a shift in the workforce in terms of the value the people attach to work and how they fit it into their lives, rather than dictating other things in their life," she says. "There is more focus on productivity and what you deliver, rather than where you deliver it from."
This means giving employees a chance to work from home for certain days of the week, or providing flexibility in the start and finish times. This could be a regular arrangement or depending on "what is going on in a person's life".
Christensen observes there are more people taking up this option. "Two to three years ago we really got to the point of recognising more and more people are going to want to take this up, so we formalised our policies and got our procedures and processes up on the intranet so people can understand what is available, how it would work and what they need to do in order to take it up."
EDS New Zealand also makes use of the fact that it has access to experts across its global network. "A lot of our employees would interact almost on a daily basis either with regional teams or global teams. They have access to all the knowledge that is out there." Thus, employees can choose to have an online mentor or coach from across EDS' global offices.
Creativity is the key, as Bahman Koohestani, the CIO of Orbitz, could attest. Koohestani created his own currency "Bahman bucks" that his 300-member IT department could use in a restaurant across the street from its Chicago headquarters, and for group outings. Managers distribute the currency to staff before a social event to encourage members of the IT department to socialise after work. "The business that plays together works better together," he tells CIO US.
And it turns out, they also stay together. Koohestani says Orbitz's IT turnover is low, partly because employees don't want to leave their co-worker friends. "It is significantly cheaper for us to increase our productivity and do something about retention than recruit new people [due to turnover]," says Koohestani. "The type of work we do and the competitive market we're in requires an extra level of connectedness you don't get from coming to work every day and punching out at the end of a shift."
With additional reporting from Meridith Levinson
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