Like many other industries today, IT is experiencing hiring freezes, layoffs, reduced benefits and increased work stresses. While much attention is focused on the woes of front line employees during this time, IT leaders also face myriad challenges. One such obstacle is what Rob Bogosian calls a “flattening” of IT departments.
“What’s happening is those who are in formal leadership positions and management positions are now having to do the actual work themselves,” said Bogosian, senior consultant at CRG Associates, a human resources and organizational development consultancy.
Instead of “leading in isolation” and spending their time strategizing and guiding employees in the lower ranks, as a result of cutbacks these leaders are now rolling up their sleeves and engaging in the actual work tasks. “It’s sort of like the levels in the organization are collapsing,” Bogosian explained.
This increased time in the trenches in turn affects the entire business unit. As employees lose their sense of psychological safety during layoffs and restructurings, they look to their leaders to sort out the chaos. But the leader is much less available to attend to direct reports’ needs.
“Everybody who remains [after restructuring] becomes psychologically disrupted,” Bogosian said. “People at the target level need to make sense of what’s going on. They need to make sense of the new organization. [And they look to their leaders] for support, for guidance, for feedback, for direction. [But now] there are more people competing for a limited amount of time from their leaders.”
So what’s a leader to do?
“In a phrase or a sentence: [Be] up-front, totally honest, all the time,” Bogosian said. “Acknowledge and legitimize the current realities both inside and outside the organization. If the picture isn’t rosy, don’t try to paint it as such.
“Communicate and discuss openly what will happen: How will we respond to this as an organization, as team members, as business units?” he continued. “[This] is the best way for people to get back to business as usual.”
In addition, it’s important for leaders to redistribute work in a collaborative fashion, involving every member of a business unit.
“The redistribution of work is everybody’s responsibility, and I find that if the organization steps back and looks at what has to get done and looks at the redistribution of work, it’s an opportunity for realignment. [In fact, the company] actually can fuel innovation if the dialogue is collaborative and open and inclusive.”
IT leaders have an added challenge in this process due to the nature of their work. Since IT professionals generally work on a project-by-project basis and professionals hold on to proprietary information, knowledge management is crucial, Bogosian said.
“When intelligence migrates from an organization, you have a knowledge gap that has to be made up very quickly. So it leaves IT organizations with a double bind: one, dealing with the redistribution of work; and two, dealing with the knowledge management challenge,” he said.
Aside from the details of realigning work tasks, the key to surviving this downturn is retaining commitment from employees. Bogosian said employees will ask themselves: “‘How committed am I to the organization? How committed am I to stay here and extend effort and to put out above the zero maintenance line, [where I just do the work necessary to keep my job?’] That’s how we measure success in a downturn.”
Leaders can facilitate this success by attending to employees’ psychological needs so that they can refocus on the business, and then having an open and inclusive conversation about what’s next in terms of work.
“Leaders need to involve their teams more often on more things than they ever have before,” Bogosian said. “You must go through the process of business as unusual before you can get back to the process of business as usual. There are no shortcuts. There’s no way to avoid it.”
– Mpolakowski, firstname.lastname@example.org