From flexible working hours to career development programmes, we look at the most effective ways to create a environment in which staff work at their very best
Given the amount of time spent working, it stands to reason that most people want that experience to be as good as possible. But what are the factors that make an IT employer good to work for?
It seems clear that there is a very broad range of ingredients that go into the Best Place to Work cocktail. Some ingredients are core and fundamental, some are simply "cherries" that add that certain something to the recipe. Overall, the factors do seem to fall into several categories.
Perhaps one of the most fundamental factors is whether the employer shows a genuine commitment to their employees' careers, investing in their development for the mutual benefit of both.
Career development as a term covers a very wide range of aspects and activities, from formal training courses to extend either technical knowledge (new software releases etc), management skills (budgeting, negotiating etc) or professional qualifications, to the broader and more personal, such as mentoring and leadership programmes.
According to Denise Plumpton of the Corporate IT Forum, employers should show "commitment to training and development such as opportunities to attend industry briefings and so on."
E-skills UK says IT staff need "opportunities for development, ideally based around an agreed skills framework so that both employer and employee can identify any skills gaps and provide access to training."
For Charles Hughes, president of the British Computer Society, "employers should offer assistance with career planning and re-training to enable both the employee and employer to react to today's fast changing corporate demands on IT, as well as keeping apace with technology's ever hastening evolution."
According to John Leighfield of the Institute for the Management of Information Systems, employers need to implement plans to enable staff to develop and meet their full potential.
In short, no one wants to think they are merely standing still. However satisfying their current job may be, everyone needs to be able to think ahead to the next one, and to know that employers are doing the same.
But that is not to say that the existing job should not provide satisfaction. Again, there are many factors that contribute to how satisfied an employee will be.
Although an IT department must obviously meet business needs, it is clear that those companies that can provide mentally stimulating work to their staff will be more enjoyable places to work.
"Does having interesting work to do help?" asks Ben Booth, IT director of Mori and chair of the BCS IT director's Elite group.
"Very much so. It can make a big difference. Also, one has to consider that if the work is dull and boring, maybe it should not be done in-house anyway."
Where possible, says Plumpton, IT staff "like access to the latest technologies, exploring them and implementing them for the business - IT people like being at the forefront."
But all the tech toys in the world will not compensate for a lack of what shows through as one of the most important "best place" factors - whether or not an employee's contribution is valued.
Although value can be demonstrated in financial terms - the higher the salary, the higher the value of an employee to an employer - this is not the factor that makes the most impact. Respect and appreciation are what matters to employees.
"Credit should be given when jobs are done well, and not just taken for granted," says Roger Ellis of the IT Directors' Network. "People want to be appreciated and respect shown for them. These factors are far more important than simple issues like salary or how big your desk is."
For E-Skills, "employees are happier and more productive in an inclusive environment where everyone feels respected, regardless of their background, and feels able to achieve their full potential."
However, this is not to say that tangible "recognition by reward" is not appreciated. As Ray Titcombe of the IBM Computer Users Association points out, "Individual reward schemes for an outstanding person or activity as a way of immediate recognition and reward has increased and is very popular with staff."
What clearly comes through is that it is not enough for the IT department itself to value and respect its staff. That has to be seen throughout the organisation, in the way IT overall is treated.
"A great employer for IT professionals recognises their value to its business, and the role IT plays in achieving effective and efficient business processes," says Michael Gough of the National Computing Centre.
"Many organisations in the last 10 to 15 years have treated IT as a commodity. The technology may have become a commodity, but the skills to harness its potential are definitely not. The choices an organisation makes in regard to IT deployment give a clear indicator on its view of IT.
"Those organisations that outsource give a pretty clear indication that they view IT as a cost. Those organisations that run their own facilities demonstrate that they view IT as fundamentally important, and seek to develop their capability and capacity."
Plumpton agrees. "You want recognition - knowing that IT is respected in the organisation and not the thorn in the side stuck in the basement out of sight."
Booth says, "It's about working in an environment where you are respected for what you do. You're seen as part of a larger team - you're not just a 'plumber', a 'Mr Fixit'. This affects the way you feel about your job."
The notion that IT is working for the business, not for itself, is vital in creating that ethos in the workplace.
"Management needs to encourage IT teams to understand more fully the business decision making processes that increasingly relies on technology to drive them," says Hughes.
A well managed department is inherently a better place to work than a poorly managed one. Says Plumpton, "Staff need a friendly boss and a clear direction about where they are going and what they should be focused on - you can't beat that."
"Staff need to be given clear roles in a project or team with a goal that is well understood and that staff are committed to," says John Higgins, director general of Intellect.
For Leighfield, an IT department that is a best place to work should provide "fulfilling work and clear objectives for all staff and the provisions of the means to achieve them".
Inspirational leadership is also vital. "Leadership, the fostering of team spirit, the demonstration of going the extra mile, and your staff wanting to come with you, both within the working environment and in the community, is what singles out a company as a best place to work," says Robin Laidlaw, president of the Computer Weekly 500 club and former head of IT at British Gas.
For Ellis, "True leaders should be caring for their staff and be understanding if a personal crisis arises or of the need for holidays at a specific time. Any criticism should always be made in private, never in public."
According to Higgins, "IT staff need to be given the ability to develop through new experiences supported with proper training, all in the context of clear and inspirational departmental and organisation goals - they need to be given the chance to give their best in a winning team."
For Gough, "A great employer will also have a great leader of the IT function. They will be acknowledged as pivotal to business transformation and success and are likely to be on the board or at least reporting to the chief executive."
Esprit de corps comes not only from being respected and appreciated, from clear, strong management and inspirational leadership, but also from the peer group as well.
According to Plumpton, camaraderie is essential. "Despite the urban myth that IT people are introverted and insular, they almost all like the buzz of the office and the opportunity to bounce technical ideas between themselves."
A best place to work means "working with professional people who trust and respect each other," says Hughes.
"The best places to work all involve a happy environment," says Ellis. "There should be good humour and a relaxed - although obviously professional - atmosphere."
"There should be a culture of mutual support and friendliness," says Leighfield. A good working environment requires good team working, and that means good team bonding. Employers that pay attention to that will thrive.
"A lot of best places have very focused events and opportunities for staff to 'gel' and socialise in support of the work environment," says Titcombe.
The physical environment can be a real factor, too, although this can be subjective, depending on the individual needs of employees, says Laidlaw.
"It can vary considerably. Small offices backed up against commuter railway lines may mean there's an easy journey [to work] which suits employees, but for others a best place to work is one where they can drive door to door. For others, a town centre location, good for lunchtime shopping and after work facilities is what counts."
Creches, on-site gyms or scenic surroundings can also be contributory factors, and, increasingly, a good working environment is synonymous with one that provides a good work-life balance.
Flexible working hours, a home working ability provided with laptops and mobiles, and a culture supportive of people's non-work needs and wants, are all becoming "part of the package", says Laidlaw.
"A best place to work includes observing the family and home needs of staff," says Leighfield.
"Work-life balance features prominently, with many organisations recognising domestic situations as things to be supported, rather than ignored," says Titcombe.
However, as Plumpton points out, "Work-life balance depends very much on the individual. People do get a real buzz out of success which many mean staying late to fix a problem or to implement a new solution, as long as it is not a regular thing - beware the difference between commitment and exploitation."
Sometimes, as Booth acknowledges, "Getting a work-life balance can be difficult in IT as we are providing a service, which has to be available during certain hours."
Overall, then, there is no one unique selling point when it comes to being a best place to work. There are some vital common ingredients - being valued, both tangibly and intangibly, by the business and each other; having mentally challenging work to do; being part of a strong, supportive, successful team; management that inspires and nurtures and releases individual potential within an achievable career trajectory; and, increasingly, being able to balance working life with personal and family life.
But it can also be a question of individual choice. For some IT professionals, a highly paid, high pressure City career with long hours, a long commute and cramped office space would be ideal, for others more lowly paid, but vocational, social-value work in a scenic environment would be ideal.
One thing is very clear, however - for employers to get the best value out of IT staff, the staff must get best value out of their employer. Then it is a win-win.