“I had to be nice to you in 1999,” said the CIO in a low, ominous voice in his monthly all-hands meeting. “I had Y2K to worry about. And I had to be nice to you again in 2000,” he continued, his voice rising in pitch and amplitude just a bit, “because we were dealing with an IT labor shortage and the alternative was to give you all raises, which would have hurt my budget and cut into my bonus.”

“But now!” he barked. “Now the gloves are off! I’m not going to ask your opinion about anything! All interesting work is going off-shore unless you accept pay cuts! WEEKENDS ARE CANCELED! BWAHAHAHAHA!!!”

Okay, this never really happened. At least, if it did I don’t know where or by whom. But in the Even Newer Economy that’s replaced the late lamented New Economy, some IT organizations certainly have become meaner as well as leaner.

Three years ago we were seeing articles chock full of techniques for retaining IT staff without busting your budget — how to make the workplace friendlier, more informal, more rewarding and so on. Where are those articles now?

In the archives gathering dust, that’s where. We don’t need that stuff right now, because with few exceptions, even very good IT professionals can’t buy a job.

Here’s the problem. In the end there are only two techniques to retain and motivate excellent IT professionals: Pay them so much they can’t afford to leave, or be the kind of person they really, really want to work for. Of the two, the second has many more benefits and far lower costs. And if, for you, all that stuff about creating great work environments is just a tactic to be adopted when necessary and dropped when inconvenient, just who do you think you’ll fool?

Fools, that’s who — not desirable employees.

Right now, retaining staff is easy. Motivating them still requires effort, but in this economy just about everyone is working with a healthy dose of fear that they could be out on the streets, so believe me, they’re motivated, too. Why bother creating a great work environment?

The simple answer is, why not? It costs you very little, and it buys you smart work as well as hard work. Even better, it buys you one thing even a bad economy can’t:

Loyalty from your employees when the economy eventually does improve.