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James McGill smiles a lot. He smiles when he talks about his first experiences programming BBC microcomputers in primary school.
He smiles when he talks about integrating large sets of data into Google Maps. He smiles when he talks about sharing information over a ping pong table in Google’s games room. He smiles because he’s convinced he works in the best job in the world, for a company that has again made it to the top of BRW’s Best Places to Work list – Google.
“What we do every day at work is genuinely difficult, the problems we solve are really interesting and every conversation I have at work is fascinating,” McGill enthuses. “That’s what’s so great about coming to work, everyone is so interesting to talk to.”
With its ping pong tables, free food, massages and creatively designed office space, Google has cemented its place at the top of Australia’s Best Places to Work list.
It’s the crowning achievement of an amazing year for information technology companies – the top five companies on this year’s list are all involved in software and web development, network infrastructure and data storage.
Further down the list, the skew towards the IT sector continues with 20 of the top 50 employers involved specifically in providing IT services or infrastructure, while a further four or five rely heavily on information technology to for service delivery.
The next best performer was the recruitment sector, which secured only five places in the top 50.
Although the numbers wiggle around each year, the IT sector contributes roughly 5 per cent to the Australian GDP annually, and the industry employs about 2 per cent of the total working population.
So why is it that an industry that has such a small footprint on the overall economy be so dominant in a list of Australia’s top employers?
The managing director for data warehousing software company SAS Institute Australia, Gordon Clubb, says the equation is simple; to succeed in IT companies need to “hire the right people, retain the right people and make sure the right people come to work and contribute the very best.”
“Our vision,” he says, “is to give our employees the power to contribute and to make a difference.”
It’s a refrain that echoes from within the human resource departments of information communications and technology (ICT) companies across the list.
The sector prides itself on finding the smartest people, training them constantly to keep up with the changes to the subject area and creating a working environment in which they can be creative and productive.
“It would be stupid for me to hire smart people then tell them what to do,” says Mark Iles, vice-president of Juniper Networks in Australia. “I hire smart people and let them show me what they can do.”
As a result, the ICT workers are far and away the most satisfied, pampered, challenged and listened to employees in the nation.
The perks range from subsidies for healthcare and fitness, outsized parental leave and superannuation payments, flexible work hours and locations, through to the attention-grabbing pool and ping pong tables, massages, free food and Friday afternoon drinks. In most cases there is also a heavy investment in staff development and training, as well as time out to participate in community events and charitable activities.
Most importantly, ICT companies encourage staff to be creative, take risks and contribute to decisions made within the company, providing them with a level of autonomy rarely seen in more traditional sectors.
In many cases it’s an ethos that is inherited from larger corporate entities. Companies such as Google, the SAS Institute, McAfee and Juniper Networks are recognised globally for their ability to create great working environments. However, the Best Places to Work list also features a clutch of smaller Australian companies – e-Web Marketing, Atlassian, Altis Consulting, Distribution Central and Kiandra IT – which have created their own corporate culture from the ground up.
“We need our staff to enjoy working here and we need to be strategic about the way we promote ourselves so we can find more great staff to work here,” says Cameron Brookes, co-founder and managing director of Kiandra IT. “The thing about IT is that when we go to look for staff we’re always one candidate short.”
Indeed, one of the main reasons the IT sector in Australia is so keen to find and hold on to good staff is an endemic skills shortage in the sector.
Enrolments in IT courses at tertiary colleges and universities have been falling by an average of 10 per cent a year for the past decade (see graphs). At the same time, demand for ICT skills has been rising steadily as the sector itself expands and other industries become more dependent on information technology.
As a result there is a large, long-term and endemic deficit in the skills the IT sector needs. According to the Australian Computer Society, the ICT industry and IT departments in other sectors now employ about 500,000 people and Australia has been able to keep up with demand only by attracting staff from other disciplines and other countries.
“IT has become very good at attracting people from different industries,” says the president of the Australian Computer Society, Anthony Wong, himself a trained lawyer. “Even with current enrolments and migration, the industry will face a shortfall of 25,000 staff by 2020.”
The president of the Society for Knowledge Economics and former managing director of Microsoft in Australia, Steve Vamos, believes the capacity of the IT sector to provide a great places to work is as much due to it’s underlying culture as it is to do with the skills shortage.
“The traditional industrial view of management is that it is necessary to control people but in the connected age, management is about enablement,” Vamos says, arguing that the IT sector has long been at the forefront of this shift.
“About 25 years ago, 75 to 80 per cent of the value of a company on it’s balance sheet was based on tangible market assets, today that number is 25 to 30 per cent, the rest is based on its people.
“IT companies know this, which is why they focus so much on creating a great environment for their staff.”
According to Vamos, the underlying success of the IT industry is that it empowers individuals within companies to work in a creative and autonomous way, which in turn leads to high levels of staff engagement and productivity.
Moreover, he argues that other industries will need to adopt similar practices as technology ushers in a new era of increased connectivity.
“This is an industry which has always faced tremendous volatility and understood that it’s their people who translate their strategy into action,” Vamos says. “Managers in this industry care about their staff but not in a warm fuzzy way, more in the sense that they provide them with a meaningful task, the mastery or skills they need to do it and then the autonomy to do their job.”
And while much of the focus outside the IT industry is on the perks many of these companies provide, the staff themselves are just as interested in less tangible aspects of their work, the level of autonomy they have, the training and development programs, a lack or hierarchy and the readiness of their employers to accept and adopt new ideas.
Back at Google for example, McGill isn’t convinced the free massages for which the company is so famous make any real difference.
“I’m incredibly ticklish so I’ve never actually had a massage at work,” he says, smiling again. “I come to work for the people. It’s really hard to do what we do, so the perks help but it’s not the ping pong that’s important, it’s the conversations we have while we’re playing it. That’s why I come to work every day, it’s the conversations, that’s why I love to come here.”
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