Ground Control to Dot-Com Workers

For the most part, today’s businesses are investing in infrastructure and doing more with fewer resources, rather than buying ping-pong tables and BMWs for their workers.

While this bottom-line focus may seem like a return to normalcy for those who entered the workforce before the dot-com boom, twentysomethings who first entered the professional employment arena during those halcyon days have come crashing brutally to Earth. Perhaps for the first time, they are encountering lower salaries, set hours, rigid corporate policies and a more staid pace of business. At the same time, accountants are scrutinizing expenditures and looking for return on investment.

For some ex-dot-commers, this new environment is a burden that cannot compare with the stereotypically fun and playful dot-com culture. Many others, however, are adapting in an effort to maintain and promote their careers.

Varied Responses

“Some are [coping], and some are in culture shock,” said John Challenger, chief executive of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, in an interview with the E-Commerce Times. “Some people are having a difficult time with the process orientation, the caution and the lack of freedom and autonomy in more traditional companies.”

Nevertheless, these workers must adapt or else run the risk of joining the ranks of the 9 million unemployed Americans, said Jeff Taylor, founder and “chief monster” of Monster.com.

“It is a harsh reality for young job seekers who entered the workforce at the height of the dot-com era and quickly became accustomed to the perks that defined this extraordinary time in recent history,” Taylor told the E-Commerce Times. “The lesson: The state of employment, like the economy, is truly cyclical.”

Looking Up

It appears, however, that young and ambitious workers may not have to endure a more conservative environment indefinitely. Already, some research firms are voicing cautious optimism that the economy — and, therefore, the job market — is about to improve.

Eighteen percent of CIOs at business services firms expect to hire IT personnel before the end of the year, according to outplacement firm Robert Half Technology. Other sectors expected to have greater-than-average IT hiring plans for the remainder of 2003 include professional services, retail, finance, insurance and real estate.

For its part, Challenger, Gray & Christmas found that high-tech job cuts have decreased 31 percent in the past quarter. And when TMP Worldwide, Monster’s parent company, surveyed the high-tech industry’s human resources executives, it discovered that businesses expect to increase their staffs by an average of 3.7 percent this year.

Adapt and Change

Moreover, not all the trappings of the dot-com days are gone. Although twentysomethings may reminisce fondly about practicing their golf swings in a company’s full-service cafeteria, many workers still are reaping lasting benefits from that casual and innovative era.

For example, the same tough economy that helped bring about the demise of many dot-coms has encouraged today’s organizations to adopt some of those firms’ policies.

“There is more freedom to utilize technology-telecommuting [today],” said Challenger. “There’s more openness about managing based on someone’s output rather than clock-punching.”

Likewise, Taylor said: “The dot-com era may be over, but many work-life programs are still thriving. Companies continue to improve work-life balance initiatives for their employees in an effort to retain top talent as economic conditions improve.” He added that companies are aiming to “increase productivity and maintain a happy workforce in light of slashing budgets and smaller departments.”

Startup Skills Still Pay

Also, although many dot-coms failed as a result of poor leadership, many promoted skills that can benefit almost any organization.

“Many employees who have experience working with startups are equipped with a keen sense of urgency and the ability to meet tight deadlines — critical skills that are very important to almost any business,” Taylor said.

“Additionally, employees coming from startups bring with them a dot-com know-how that includes a comfort zone using interactive tools,” he noted. “They have learned how to communicate electronically: how to speak to customers online and through e-mail.”

Tried and True

While dot-com refugees may be disappointed by some aspects of traditional business, they may be pleasantly surprised by other things, such as more seasoned leadership and stability.

“We always try to treat our people well, and we pay our people well,” said Jack Davis, chief executive of SideBand Systems, a Beverly, Massachusetts-based provider of wireless network integration and network-monitoring services, in a conversation with the E-Commerce Times. “If you treat people well, whether it’s a boom or a bust shouldn’t really impact you.”

This approach also has helped LaserFiche, which develops document imaging and management solutions, to post a profit in each of the last 10 years, said Rob Allin, a public relations specialist at the Long Beach, California-based company. “Most of our key employees … have been here for several years, having started before the dot-com boom and stuck around through the bust,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

Back to Basics

Indeed, the best ways to retain quality employees do not involve fancy toys or outlandish gifts, according to Challenger. Rather, companies should give workers the business equivalents of basics like food and shelter: respect and competitive pay; challenging tasks and responsibilities; an environment in which people take care of each other; and a visionary or caring leader.

“The key is, it has to be real, and people have to believe in it,” he said. “It has to be authentic.”

That concept transcends job descriptions, vertical markets, economic woes — and BMWs.

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