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Swimming in IT

Surveys show your techies are up to their necks in work and going under. Toss 'em a life raft or something, will ya?
November 1, 2001
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/45382

Techies work hard-maybe too hard. When technology site Tech Republic.com surveyed nearly 4,000 tech workers in February, 67 percent claimed they worked too much, and 81 percent felt they lacked work-life balance. Their reasons are even more startling. About 40 percent cited understaffing, and 18 percent said management didn't understand how much time their tasks really took.

Ann Estabrooks, founder of Catapulta LLC, a Durham, North Carolina-based consulting firm, blames this strain on "scope creep": when companies' lack of planning forces their IT staffs to juggle too many things at once. "Nobody ever stops to ask 'What can we do to best support you? Are you burning out?'" she says. "[Managers] just keep piling it higher and deeper. There need to be processes in place that support these people."

Taking a Load Off

Last year, Michael Kogon, CEO of 70-employee software and Web consulting firm Definition6 in Atlanta, didn't like what he was seeing. The company's help desk was disorganized, and IT workers were spending too much time fighting small fires, like helping co-workers reboot their computers.

To ease the load, Kogon, 31, hired a manager with a technical background to supervise the IT department and act as a buffer between it and the rest of the company. Employees who used to call every time they had a computer problem were told to send e-mail instead so the IT staff could prioritize its workload. The IT department was also allowed to bring in contractors for trouble-shooting.

Bradley Dick, a research and development engineer at Definition6, says the changes made a big difference. "It's taken 50 percent of the strain off our day," he says. "We're not being pulled in 30 directions at once." Good thing, or else the company would have a tougher time with its growth from sales of more than $2 million in 2000 to a projected $5 million this year.

Turning on a Dime

Cindy Miller, 36, understands being pulled in too many directions. When she was a network specialist in the late 1990s, the pace was brisk and the hours long. A typical day began with 100 new messages, and Miller never had more than 10 minutes without an interruption. She carried a pager seven days a week and postponed all her vacations. "In a small company, you can be the only game in town," she says. "You're supposed to perform miracles."

Two years ago, Miller founded Bedrock Concepts Inc., a 10-employee technology consulting firm in Zebulon, North Carolina, to regain some control over her life, but not before learning some valuable lessons about how companies fail to connect with their IT departments. Managers may not understand that changing technology means the needs and goals of a project may turn on a dime. Then there's the struggle over priorities. If you expect your IT person to take care of every computer in the office, he or she won't get to other projects. Something's got to give, especially when the goal posts keep moving.

Taking a Tech Timeout

To avoid techie burnout, consider creating a rotation so no single employee is always on call. Offer backup, too. Techies like to know help is on the way, whether it's an outside consultant or even just an intern who comes in on Thursday afternoons. "When no one else in the company can understand what you do, that's not a good place to be," Miller says.

Entrepreneurs need to understand the techie mind-set, says Bob Artner, vice president of content at Tech Republic. These employees will inflict the long hours on themselves because they're used to being the only people in the company who can solve the problem. "There's no one holding a gun to their heads and saying they have to work 80 hours a week," Artner says. This self-imposed pressure means that it's up to you to pay attention so that your IT people don't burn out. You need to make sure they're not constantly burning the midnight oil and that they receive uninterrupted vacations. They may thank you for it: In the Tech Republic survey, 54 percent of respondents said they'd prefer an extra two weeks of uninterrupted vacation time to a $5,000 increase in salary.

Keeping your IT staff from feeling overworked can be as simple as hiring a consultant who comes in once a week to help out because you're understaffed or training a non-tech co-worker or intern to do simple backups and updates. Ask your tech workers what kind of structure they need to make their jobs easier. It will save you from a load of technical difficulties down the line.