What makes a good company a 'best' place to work?

Perks are nice, but free lunches, team-building exercises and off-site outings aren’t the key drivers of workplace satisfaction.

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Most employees gushing over their place of work talk up the up-scale office environment, a flush benefits package, flexible work schedules, or lavish perks, from subsidized lunches to team-building exercises and off-site outings.

Yet when push comes to shove, today’s IT employees are less enthralled with the extras and more likely to be drawn to companies prioritizing career development, ready access to top tech leaders, and the ability to work with state-of-the-art technologies.

That’s not to say IT employees don’t care about benefits; they do. According to a survey by staffing firm Robert Half International, workers remain partial to well-worn staples like flexible work schedules (88 percent), bonuses (77 percent) and health insurance (69 percent), and are less impressed with niceties like on-site amenities such as a gym or child care (38 percent) or paid time off for volunteer activities (31 percent). And when all things surrounding benefits and culture are considered equal, most employees still opt for the firm willing to shell out the biggest bucks.

“Compensation is the still the ultimate deciding factor between two offers—perks and benefits are more of a tie breaker,” says Ryan Sutton, district president for Robert Half International. What is increasingly a deal breaker for many IT candidates, though, is

Most employees gushing over their place of work talk up the up-scale office environment, a flush benefits package, flexible work schedules, or lavish perks, from subsidized lunches to team-building exercises and off-site outings.

Yet when push comes to shove, today’s IT employees are less enthralled with the extras and more likely to be drawn to companies prioritizing career development, ready access to top tech leaders, and the ability to work with state-of-the-art technologies.

That’s not to say IT employees don’t care about benefits; they do. According to a survey by staffing firm Robert Half International, workers remain partial to well-worn staples like flexible work schedules (88 percent), bonuses (77 percent) and health insurance (69 percent), and are less impressed with niceties like on-site amenities such as a gym or child care (38 percent) or paid time off for volunteer activities (31 percent). And when all things surrounding benefits and culture are considered equal, most employees still opt for the firm willing to shell out the biggest bucks.

“Compensation is the still the ultimate deciding factor between two offers—perks and benefits are more of a tie breaker,” says Ryan Sutton, district president for Robert Half International. What is increasingly a deal breaker for many IT candidates, though, is working in an environment still seeped in outdated or even antiquated technology, he says.

“Candidates don’t want to work with older development languages or in an environment that’s not progressive,” Sutton says. “They want to be somewhere and work on technology that will help progress their future and that includes artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and data analytics. Those are the things candidates want to be associated with.”

Computerworld’s 2019 Best Places to Work survey drives home that point. At several companies topping the list, the stand-out qualities that landed firms in the upper echelons of coveted places to work in IT were rooted less in a benefits bonanza and more in substantive career advancement opportunities. Rather than talking up free snacks or fun-filled corporate outings, respondents were smitten with comprehensive training programs, innovation cultures and the ability to learn and be mentored by top technology management.

Creating a culture that appeals to IT talent is critical today given the shortage of tech-savvy employees and next-generation skills. According to the 2019 State of the CIO, CIOs are struggling to find the right skills to support the IT agenda, particularly as digital transformation heats up.

Data science and analytics skills are in particularly hot demand, cited by 42 percent of respondents, while security and risk management skills (33 percent), AI/machine learning (31 percent), and cloud services/integration (22 percent) also topped the hard-to-find skills list. In addition to technology skills, half of respondents to the 2019 State of the CIO were actively in need of technology integration and implementation skills along with soft skills in areas like strategy creation, business relationship management, and project management.

Career Advancement

Robert Booth was happy to bring his areas of expertise to Accelirate Inc., attracted by the firm’s flat hierarchy and open culture. Accelirate, one of the companies cited on the Computerworld list, is a start-up in the automation space, one of the hottest new technology areas. “There is open communication between everyone, from the CEO to the first entry-level employee,” says Booth, who was one of Accelirate’s first employees and has been there over three years. “Everyone has a voice and contributes. They care more about ideas and how to make them happen than someone’s title.”

Accelirate’s culture of innovation and advancement was also appealing to Cameron Herwig, an automation engineer at the firm—especially management’s willingness to give entry-level employees the chance to grow by embracing additional responsibility. “I really like that I can take on what ever responsibility I want,” he says. “It’s a small company and there are a lot of shoes that need filling. If you’re capable you can have it.”

Innovation Culture

For many IT employees, job satisfaction is directly tied, not just to opportunities and advancement, but to a culture that puts an emphasis on team collaboration and innovation.

Consider Suset Vega, a senior IT project manager at Illumina, another company on the 2019 Computerworld Best Places to Work in IT list, who believes a compelling IT work environment has everything to do with an open and accessible culture. Vega, a recipient of the Illumina’s coveted employee of the month award, appreciates receiving company-wide recognition for her efforts, particularly when the nod and support comes directly from top management, including the CIO.

“This is a culture that is more agile and open and less hierarchical,” she explains. “We have harmony in that we support each other as a team and understand why decisions are made. That naturally reduces the time for projects.”

In addition to seeking out collaborative cultures, IT workers also gravitate to organizations that respect their desire for independence. Justin Formella, chief strategy officer at MBX Systems, is working hard to create that culture at the systems integrator, which provides bespoke computing hardware and software solutions to companies across a variety of industries.

Formella makes it a point to give IT employees a certain level of autonomy so they can focus on what they’re producing as opposed to micromanaging the details of how they get it done. “We’re clear with people on what the expectations are and what it is they are to deliver, and then we let them deliver and get out of the way,” he explains. “One of the big things people crave is autonomy and the opportunity to continue to improve and advance.”

At Synchrony, nurturing a culture of innovation, particularly as it relates to technology, is a top objective for positioning its IT organization as a stand-out in the competitive financial services market, according to Carol Juel, Synchrony’s executive vice president and CIO. The company also makes it a top priority to establish technology’s role as the key to Synchrony’s future success.

“One of the things IT employees look for is how much stature [in an organization] technology has,” she says. “It’s not about ego, it’s about the role that technology plays in the company — that’s what is going to drive whether a candidate believes there’s an opportunity for them in that firm.”

Talent and career development is another important tool that organizations can and should wield to attract and retain employees, Juel says. Synchrony invests significantly in employee training, she says, and is careful to personalize programs to meet the generational differences in expectations for advancement and career development, especially for millennials and Gen Z.

“We spend a lot of time on training and development, not just for what they need to do on the job, but for what they need from a leadership standpoint to grow their career,” Juel says. “We invest in them and give them a sense that this place will help me grow.”