Balancing Act

Dec. 21, 2004
In an effort to hire and retain employees, companies are offering programs that help balance work and personal lives.

At PNC Bank in Pittsburgh, the roughly 200 employees in corporate finance work extra-long shifts, but have every 10th working day off. In addition, more than 100 whitecollar PNC employees -- dubbed reduced-service professionals -- have their salaries prorated for the amount of time they work, but enjoy the same benefits as full-time workers. Similarly, on any given day most departments of manufactured-home builder Champion Enterprises Inc., Auburn Hills, Mich., will have two or more managers working at home. "Prior to 1997 such ideas would have been considered 'underground,'" says Heather S. Buehler, vice president and manager of work/life strategies, PNC Bank. "But now they have become a recruiting tool." Indeed, the pressures to recruit and retain workers are causing a greater number of companies to reevaluate corporate support for issues that just a few years ago were considered fringe benefits for a small group. The movement to make work/life initiatives the centerpiece of recruiting and retention strategies shouldn't come as a surprise. A recent survey by found that 42% of all job seekers identified work/life issues as the most important consideration in their choice of a new job. Similarly, a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey in 1999 of 2,500 college students in 11 countries found that 57% said achieving a balance between personal life and career is their primary career goal. "The reality has shifted dramatically from just a few years ago," says Joy Bunson, senior vice president, organizational development, Chase Manhattan Corp., New York. "What was the work/life agenda has become the business agenda." And, she adds, for those companies that have not yet addressed such issues, the Ask The Children 2000 study funded by her bank should serve as a wake-up call. The study, which asked high-school students what they will look for in a job, found that between 75% and 84% of the students want meaningful work, with security, where they are treated well and where they also have time for their personal and family lives. What's more, 68% of the girls and 50% of the boys said that they planned to reduce their work hours when they have children. "Business must face up to this," says Bunson. "We must reshape our cultures." The challenge for companies is to determine how different generations of employees view work/life issues. And that task won't be easy, because workers' views differ greatly. "Diversity, not conformance, is the social norm in today's society," says J. Walker Smith, president, Yankelovich Partners Inc., New York. "There is no one right way to live, but many right ways to live. As a company you have to put yourself into the shoes of [others], see what lifestyle issues and priorities each generation has, and address them." That was one of the reasons DaimlerChrysler AG -- which for three consecutive years has been on Working Mother magazine's list of the 100 best companies for working mothers -- three years ago added a work/family account to its benefits. Today, those accounts provide professional, administrative, and managerial workers with $8,000 they can use as they see fit -- child- or elder- care expenses, retirement savings, adoption assistance, education accounts for dependents, or other needs. (Similar benefits for union workers are negotiated.) "It allows employees to choose how the money can be used for their unique situations," says Monica E. Emerson, director, diversity and work/family, at DaimlerChrysler. For some employees, the primary work/life issue is an elder parent with dementia. To a single parent, it's child care or after-school care and work flexibility. In other cases, the issue is work hours, rising college tuition costs, or a desire to return to school while remaining connected to the corporation. "These are all work/family issues," says Jim O'Connor, director of family services, ComPsych Corp., Chicago. "Any solution must be appropriate for the individual and appropriate from a cultural standpoint." "There will not be a silver bullet in work/life issues that companies can use for recruitment and retention," agrees Steve McMahon, former vice president, human resources, at San Rafael, Calif.-based Autodesk Inc. who last month became chief administrative officer for Ninth House Inc., a San Francisco Internet-based training firm. "You have to look at what type of people your corporation needs and ask yourself how you can attract them and get them to stay. You have to provide a workplace that invites people to work, but you still have to do what's appropriate for your culture. "You will need guidelines, not rules, in the 21st century," says McMahon, whose former employer, Autodesk, offers six-week sabbaticals every four years and places no limit on sick or personal days; it also lets employees set their own hours. "Where and how you work is up for grabs," says Karol Rose, managing director of LifeCare Consulting, a division of DCC Inc., Westport, Conn. "In the next decades [businesses] will need to learn how to leverage this into a competitive advantage and think of flexibility in a broad fashion -- that is, whether it is effective [and] benefits the company and the employee." That's why Rose and other work/life experts anticipate that concepts such as phased retirement, time off to return to school, concierge services, job leaves not linked to family needs, and health-care plans that allow a worker to add an elder parent to coverage will see increasing acceptance in the near future. "You can't afford to ignore the needs of the changing workforce," says DaimlerChrysler's Emerson. "If you do, it will [have] a significant negative impact on the bottom line and also be reflected in more lost workdays, more tardiness, poor morale, and loss of productivity." Besides, points out Christian C. Kjeldsen, vice president, community and workplace projects, Johnson & Johnson, New Brunswick, N.J., "you recruit based on your image. People need support. They do not need to walk a tightrope." Without question, the most flexibility today exists for employees of companies with operations in the U.S. "Flexibility outside the U.S. is almost nonexistent on a formal basis except in large multinational companies or instances where it is granted because of the generosity of an immediate supervisor," says Abby Kendrick, manager, global community initiatives, WFD Inc., Brookline, Mass. But, despite the absence of many formal programs, flexibility is becoming a global issue, she says, because of global demographic changes -- more working women, more single parents, more dual-career working families, and an aging population -- and because multinational corporations are trying to obtain a competitive advantage in key markets. What's more, adds Kendrick, the "issue of equity" has emerged. Non-U.S. employees read on company intranets and the Internet about the benefits available to employees of U.S. companies and ask for them in their own workplaces. However, she cautions, as companies shape work/life solutions outside the U.S., it is critical that they take into account social, economic, political, and cultural differences. For example, there is strong resistance in Europe to an increase in work hours. In France, schools are closed on Wednesdays, a consideration in child-care arrangements. In addition, says Kendrick, the idea of resource and referral programs -- commonplace in the U.S. -- is "culturally unacceptable" in most countries. The exceptions: Germany, Australia, and the UK. Regardless of the culture, "intangibles are very important -- especially the issue of respect," says Alice Campbell, director, work/family initiatives, Baxter International Inc., Deerfield, Ill. Nearly a decade ago company-sponsored focus groups found that employees considered lack of respect in the workplace to be the most important work/family issue. "People told us that lack of respect" -- evidenced by people not saying hello to each other or not recognizing that they have other responsibilities or interests -- makes them "dysfunctional at home and at work" and not connected to the corporation, she notes. "We have been pushing [the issue of respect] throughout Baxter," says Campbell, whose company offers and encourages flexible work arrangements. But more important than having flexible work arrangements is having a system that "allows employees to take time off to get done what they have to get done off the job."

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