by Megan Santosus

CIOs Need to Address Warm-chair Attrition Head-on

Aug 15, 20036 mins
IT Leadership

As CIO, you’ve probably noticed some disturbing behaviors of late among your IT staff. Employees you’ve known for their loyal, dependable service are absent from work more often than ever before. On those days when they do manage to show up, these same employees—also formerly valued for their punctuality—are frequently tardy. While at work, their enthusiasm is not what it once was. Their adherence to project deadlines is slipping.

Such behavior is certainly symptomatic of stress, which is on the rise among IT departments everywhere (see “Staff Alert” at But it could also be a sign of something more insidious, something Roger Herman, CEO of management consultancy The Herman Group, calls warm-chair attrition.

In essence, employees suffering from warm-chair attrition have already left their jobs, at least mentally. Their physical departure only awaits the first uptick in the job market. How can you tell if your department is afflicted by warm-chair attrition as opposed to stress? Herman says a tell-tale sign is a marked increase in personal phone conversations.

Herman cites several surveys that indicate that 30 percent to 40 percent of today’s employees focus on their next job rather than the one they currently have. That means they are spending much of their time at work looking for their next opportunity rather than doing what you’re paying them for.

For CIOs whose IT departments are so afflicted, the long-term prognosis isn’t good. Sure, with IT employment stagnant, there aren’t a whole lot of options available for your database analysts, network administrators, software developers or help desk personnel. But when the tide does turn—and the only debate today seems to be over the issue of when, not if—the result will be a mass exodus. And it won’t be the laggards who leave. For those IT departments that have already suffered layoffs, most of the laggards are already long gone; those that remain most likely wear their inertia like a badge of honor. No, the first people out the door will be the folks with the most options—the best employees in your organization. Just as the work increases, just as you ramp up to meet the challenge of an expanding market, just when you really need their expertise, they’ll be beating a path to the door. That’s why CIOs need to be proactive by addressing warm-chair attrition head-on.

Why They Want to Leave

When the economy was booming, retaining good employees was a real headache. All those perks and bonuses to dole out, and still employees left for greener pastures. Now that the economy stinks, opportunities for moving on are relatively scarce. You no longer have to tax your imagination or dip into your company’s coffers to come up with carrots to keep your people at their posts. Yet retaining good people should still be among your top concerns.

The first steps to giving retention issues their due are 1. Acknowledge that your IT department has a problem; and 2. Realize that much of that problem has to do with your leadership. A staff beset by warm-chair attrition is a staff that has little sense of its contribution to the organization or faith in its future role. It’s the job of the CIO, not the HR department, to address both of those issues directly.

What You Can Do to Keep Them

The good news for CIOs is that taking the pulse of your staff is a matter of common sense not rocket science. One method Herman suggests is to poll your IT department as if you’re conducting an internal focus group. Ask your employees what they like about their jobs, what they need in terms of training, mentoring and the like that they aren’t getting, and where they envision their careers going. There should be no repercussions for honesty, no matter how brutal. To avoid turning the exercise into one big gripe session, encourage employees to suggest solutions to the issues they bring to light. As Herman points out, employees are more supportive of initiatives that they help create.

Long-term employees may need a bit more care and feeding. Rather than a focus group approach, CIOs need to put veterans through a reorientation process. With retirement funds decimated, being completely vested in a stock plan is not much of a motivating factor to stick around anymore. In addition, the corporate mission may have changed markedly since they first joined, and no one has bothered to let them in on where the company’s going and why they should stick around to help it get there.

The general principle behind both internal focus groups and reorientation is the same. Think of them as PR efforts aimed to win back the hearts and minds of your employees.

Another approach in the same vein is to reach out to other departments. This only works for CIOs who don’t operate in a vacuum, and ideally every CIO should fit in that category. The premise: Build relationships with other departments in the organization so that you can establish your IT employees as a resource to which they can easily turn. Again, this can be another exercise in internal PR, but one that should focus on how the IT group helps customers throughout the organization. This combats that sinking feeling among IT folks that no one outside their department knows or cares about what they do. It also gives your IT people insight into how their work helps the company achieve its strategy. That, in turn, can generate motivation.

Above all, says Herman, CIOs with a warm-chair attrition problem need to avoid the temptation to appease their workforce with platitudes or a “pity poor us, ain’t it awful” kind of message. Everyone knows the economy’s in the tank and that most companies aren’t living high off the hog anymore. What employees want to know is why they should keep showing up to work each day. Is the company actively looking to emerge from tough times, or is it content to remain as stagnant as most employees’ real wages? That’s the issue CIOs need to address.

A lot of the stuff CIOs need to do to combat warm-chair attrition falls into the touchy-feely category of assuaging fears and untangling uncertainties, something some CIOs are not too comfortable doing. But they’ll have to get comfortable real quick unless they want to get blindsided by a flurry of resignations when the business outlook does pick up.

Even in down times, you need to work to keep your employees around, if not literally, then at least figuratively. As a CIO, you don’t want your employees to stay with you simply because they’ve got nowhere else to go.