IT talent and the Great Resignation: 8 ways to nurture retention

There's never been a better time for talent to explore new opportunities. To retain your top performers, consider this expert advice
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Experienced IT leaders know that skilled technology professionals are hard to find. And these days, they’re even harder to keep.

It’s the anticipated Great Resignation writ large in record-high turnover numbers reported by technology organizations and functions. More than a third of respondents to an August 2021 survey conducted by Everest Group had seen their attrition rates increase more than 11 percent over the previous quarter, with the average rise in attrition across respondents coming in at 10.5 percent.

Technology employees have never had more opportunities than they do right now to advance their skills online, network at virtual events, and work remotely without relocating to tech hubs. They can dip their toes in multiple pools and switch streams relatively easily. And after months of toiling to keep their organizations going amid turbulent times, the urge to seek out calmer (or more rewarding) seas is strong.

[ Want more advice on talent retention? Read also: 8 new rules for winning the IT talent battle. ]

“IT professionals are highly valued members of company teams, and opportunity for these skilled individuals to develop or move on seems endless these days,” says Michele Bailey, author of The Currency Of Gratitude: Turning Small Gestures Into Powerful Business Results and CEO of The Blazing Group. “On top of that, the many changes and challenges brought by the pandemic have increased stress levels among us all. There is certainly plenty of reason for stressed-out IT leaders to look outside their existing roles for new opportunities and a better work-life balance.”

For CIOs who want to retain their top talent, it can be a tough sell. They need to encourage their key players to explore new opportunities and explore open doors but ultimately entice them to stay within the organization. “IT – maybe more than another function – has to make it a high priority to retain their talent,” says Elizabeth Freedman, head of consulting at executive coaching and assessment firm Bates.

8 ways to nurture IT talent

Nurturing retention will take some effort – and finesse – in the coming days. Here are some actions IT leaders can take to keep their best and brightest in-house.

1. Monitor the employee mood more frequently

"One thing for leaders to consider is [whether they] have the right processes, systems, and mindsets as leaders in place to smell the smoke in the shop early enough," Freedman says. “Leaders need to be really attuned right now to early warning signs that you may have a retention issue.”

Given the attractiveness in the market right now, every IT leader should assume that their team members are at least looking around and put in place processes and systems like pulse polls and feedback loops to keep abreast of the current environment. LinkedIn Glint advises ditching the annual employee engagement survey for more frequent check-ins and a “people dashboard” that offers comprehensive and current engagement data and enables leaders and managers to track trends and address them in a timely manner.

Peter Cappelli, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and director of its Center for Human Resources, told HR Magazine that he recommends fielding pulse surveys because they can be created quickly and the response rates tend to be higher than for longer surveys. Employee groups whose engagement scores trended down over two pulse surveys had a 50% higher attrition rate than groups whose scores held steady over the same time period, according to Glint research.

Every IT leader should assume that their team members are at least looking around and put in place pulse polls and feedback loops to keep abreast of the current environment.

2. Get personal

Keeping track of leading indicators of turnover in a formal and recurring way is necessary but not sufficient. “It’s important to go beyond the formal ways that we get input like engagement surveys,” says Freedman. “You need something that is far more real-time. It’s critical to stay close and have a good pulse on where people are.”

IT leaders need to make it a habit to check in – really check in – with their teams. “As a leader, you need to keep tuned in to the warning signs of fatigued or disengaged employees,” says Bailey. Particularly in the virtual work environment, leaders must make an effort to stay connected to their teams and understand what motivates them.

“Adding in the human element can personalize a job more and build a bond that’ll make it harder for an employee to want to leave,” says Kristen Fowler, practice lead at Clarke Caniff Strategic Search.

3. Be flexible

"Demand for talent is high, and in order to build and maintain a team of happy, productive, and engaged employees, some flexibility on the part of leadership will always be essential to address individual team member wishes and needs," says Bailey.

Prioritizing the well-being of team members will pay greater dividends than rigid adherence to process above people. “IT professionals often work longer hours than other members of the organization,” Bailey says. “Recognize your employees’ need for balancing their work and professional lives.”

4. Give employees a voice

Let’s face it – there are just some things that are difficult to say directly to your boss. “You need to make sure you are front-footed and attuned to how people are really feeling,” says Freedman. “Thus, it’s important to make it easier for team members to voice their concerns and make it clear what they want.”

People leave for any number of reasons, including higher pay, more flexible hours, and better professional development opportunities. Give them an outlet to share their needs so you can determine how to meet them internally. IT leaders might partner with their HR organizations to conduct focus groups and gather data on more complex issues or use intranets in-house social media platforms for more frequent check-ins and to collect feedback.

[ More expert tips on IT talent: 3 considerations for recruitment and retention in 2022 ]

5. Make opportunities more overt

Once you have a better idea of what might cause employees to leave, illuminate how they might get that within your organization. “IT leaders need to show their talent a clear path forward,” says Fowler. “They need to show that the organization is always looking to evolve for the better and adapt to new technologies.”

Offer employees continuous education opportunities and advancement opportunities in terms of salary or title to correspond with the additional skills they gain. “Leaders must show their employees a progressive career path and the rewards that come with it – tangible and intangible,” Fowler says.

Leaders must show their employees a progressive career path and the rewards that come with it – tangible and intangible.

6. Encourage connection

Seclusion is rampant in virtual work and the resulting disconnection can cause people to detach from their workplace. “Take the time to encourage human connection among the employees in your business as opposed to the isolation often associated with IT roles and remote work,” says Bailey. “Lack of regular interaction with fellow employees may actually result in employees re-examining their roles or even focusing on the less desirable parts of their job, which may just motivate them to move on.”

7. Conduct "stay" interviews

Exit interviews can offer important data to distinguish voluntary turnover (which the organizations can do something about) from involuntary turnover (which may not be preventable). But even more valuable data can be gathered by talking to those employees who are staying put.

Dick Finnegan, author of The Power of Stay Interviews for Engagement and Retention and CEO of consultancy C-Suite Analytics, told SHRM that he recommends asking employees such questions as what they look forward to each day heading into work, what they are learning, why they stay, when was the last time they thought about leaving and what prompted it, and what the company can do to make working there better for the employee.

8. Practice out-loud gratitude

“Maybe employees are leaving to work for an employer whose values they believe better align with their own [or] where they believe their contribution is valued,” Bailey says. Sometimes these defections are due to a lack of expressed appreciation. And that doesn’t cost a thing.

“Gratitude, appreciation, and kindness will never be ineffective or outmoded. Active listening and the gift of your time will never go out of style,” Bailey says. “Your employees will be confident that they are supported, and their efforts are recognized and valued when you approach business relationships from a position of gratitude.”

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation eBook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.