What’s happiness got to do with IT? Probably a lot more than you think
Frederick Winslow Taylor: Hero of Scientific Management | QAD Blog
Frederick Taylor, seeing the matrix in 1911
When Frederick Taylor looked at workers, he saw machines. The core idea of his canonical 1911 monograph, The Principles of Scientific Management, is that we can measure all the things workers do and then optimize every human motion for maximum efficiency. In Taylor’s view, there’s one perfect way to load coal into a wheelbarrow, and it doesn’t matter who’s doing it. But Taylor missed a pretty big piece of the equation—the motivation for the human doing the shoveling. Taylor never noticed that the people loading the coal probably had preferences on how they stood while shoveling, their dominant hand, or their favorite shovel. As the quintessential 19th century capitalist, the idea that the grip of one shovel might feel better than another for a particular worker was beyond Taylor’s grasp. These days, there’s a lot of research to show why taking a human-focused view—you could think of it as a favorite-shovel model—matters, especially right now. According to a recent global survey from McKinsey & Company, one in four employees has symptoms of burnout—what McKinsey describes as “the feeling of depletion, cynicism, and emotional distance that results from a lack of impact or autonomy at work.”1 And experts estimate that this burnout, and the related phenomenon of quiet quitting, are costing the world’s economy nearly $9 trillion per year2. It boils down to this: many people don’t feel happy or supported at work, and it’s taking a toll on all of us. This is what I was thinking about as I read the latest report from Happy Signals. They measure how employees experience IT, and their goal is to help companies improve and enable happiness and productivity for their teams. Their 2023 Global IT Experience Benchmark Report offers some really interesting ways to think about the big (but often overlooked) role IT can play in making teams feel positive and motivated—especially when IT departments put humans first. Here are a few things that got my attention:
  • IT people’s attitudes matter—a lot. In the Happy Signals’ surveys, an IT person’s attitude was the second most important factor in an employee’s overall feeling about their IT experience. (Number one was IT support services.)
  • The size of a company may impact how employees feel about their IT. Happy Signals found that there isn’t huge variation, on average, in IT-related happiness across companies of different sizes. But the averages hid an interesting insight: the companies with the happiest respondents were smaller; the companies with the least happy respondents were bigger. In my experience, this may come down to who you know. In a small company, employees might feel a closer connection to their IT people. So they’re thinking, ‘I know Jane is super busy and working really hard today, so I’m not worried about the time this is taking.’ This is an advantage that fades quickly as companies grow.
  • Good IT isn’t universal—people in different places may care about different things. The Happy Signals surveys showed some really intriguing regional differences we wouldn’t have guessed. For example, employees in North America seem a little more tolerant of delays in IT than their European counterparts. My takeaway here is IT can’t be one-size-fits-all—we need to take the time to understand what makes users happy on a local and cultural level.
  • Different industries have different needs and expectations for their IT. Happy Signals found that users in finance and insurance reported high IT satisfaction, while people in tech were the least happy. This could be because tech companies have more complex needs, so IT is wrangling harder problems, or it could stem from employees’ feelings about their own competence with tech, and their willingness to solve IT challenges independently. Regardless, it all comes back to knowing your people and what their priorities are.
What to make of all of this? My first takeaway is that the attitudes of IT people can be a game changer for employee happiness. But knowing that isn’t enough to build an IT experience people will love. There’s too much variation in priorities depending on company size, region, culture, and individual people. So my next big takeaway is that, as IT leaders, we need to listen. We can’t deliver a good, happiness-inducing IT service if we don’t know our user base. One good way to get to know them is to ask them. In hundreds of conversations with IT leaders, I’ve heard that survey response rates are typically sub-10%, so asking can be somewhat fraught. Common wisdom says that people get tired of surveys easily and stop answering. Turns out, however, this is actually not true. In reality, people stop answering surveys when they think nothing will happen with the feedback they provide3. To encourage feedback, several leaders have told me that they make a point of talking about IT survey results—and the actions they’re taking in response—in their company all-hands meetings. This tends to provoke a “They’re really listening!!”sentiment, and a dramatic increase in response rates. Another interesting approach we’ve heard about is to survey specific stakeholders, but to do it one time per-year—just before budget season. One leader we talked to accompanied the survey with a note that said, “We’re getting ready for budgeting, and want to make sure our priorities are aligned with your needs.”  Survey response rate: 100%. So if you’re trying to understand what your teams need, but you aren’t getting good response rates, it’s worth asking whether your end users know what you’ll do with survey results. If they don’t, the next step is to communicate exactly how surveys lead to real change. The bottom line from all of this: If you can’t answer the question, ‘How’s it going out there?’ with anything other than, ‘It’s quiet…too quiet,’ you probably don’t have the information you need to build a great IT function. But if you put listening at the center of your IT approach, you can help your people feel seen, motivated, and equipped with the shovel (see above) that empowers them to do their very best work.

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I’ve spent the last 20+ years solving problems in networking and cybersecurity and building great teams to deliver those solutions. These days, I’m CEO and co-founder of Fixify, a company on a mission to change the face of IT by putting care at the center. (You can sign up to follow Fixify’s journey here.) When I’m not working, I’m coaching my kids’ softball teams, reading history and math books, or sharing snacks with Luna, the adorable but mischievous wonder-mutt. I’ve never missed an opportunity to make an obscure historical reference.
2
Gallup. Why the World Can’t Quit Quiet Quitting. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/507650/why-world-quit-quiet-quitting.aspx

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