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Family Affair

As more baby boomers reach middle age and begin families, their family problems are multiplying. Companies are responding with flexible schedules, job sharing, and other arrangements that help staffers cope and boost productivity.

If your spouse, child, or parent calls when you’re at the office, do you take the call? How about a call from your child’s school or nanny? I accept those calls. So does George Bush. And so does every other chief executive with whom I’ve compared notes. Certainly, family concerns affect our work lives. But they affect our employees’ work lives as well.

In a recent survey, my company learned that 80 percent of our employees have dealt with family issues during work hours. More than 70 percent said the balancing act has caused job stress, while a third have taken off a day or more for such reasons. Demographic trends suggest these concerns will grow. Baby boomers’ children will reach school age during the 1990s: That means they will need Dad’s or Mom’s advice and counsel after school. Likely, the boomers’ aging parents-or their parents’ care providers-will also be calling with their problems.

Essentially, a company has two choices. It can attempt to control the situation, restricting calls, limiting time off, and denying work arrangements that would accommodate employees’ growing family demands. Or they can help out with such initiatives as flexible scheduling and educational programs.

Common sense points to the second choice. Making family needs the employee’s problem is certain to prompt employee resentment that will hamper productivity. By contrast, companies can treat such issues as a shared concern. The most popular family initiatives are inexpensive, but they can provide a big payoff in employee loyalty and motivation. Moreover, companies ranked as the most respected and most profitable are generally those deemed to be the most family-friendly.

OBSOLETE POLICIES

In its now-famous Workforce 2000 report, the Hudson Institute noted that during the 1990s, America‘s workforce “will grow slowly, becoming older, more female, and more disadvantaged.” Of the projected 25 million people entering the U.S. labor force between 1985 and 2000, only 15 percent will be white males. Some 64 percent will be women, while the remainder will be immigrant and minority males. “No company is immune to these demographic changes,” emphasizes Dana Friedman of the Families and Work Institute. “They render most companies’ work/ family policies useless.”

While this nontraditional workforce will bring new talents and perspectives to the workplace, it will also bring new requirements and expectations. Women remain the primary care providers in our society. As their number and role increase in the workplace, they will influence the ways business and society respond to care providers’ concerns. They will guide us toward providing more flexibility-for themselves and for men-to more successfully balance work and family cares.

The number of employees with family concerns is growing dramatically. Between 1986 and 2000, the Hudson report noted, “the number of people between the ages 35-47 will jump by 38 percent, and the number of those aged 48-53 will leap by a staggering 67 percent, compared with overall population growth of only 15 percent.”

Meanwhile, as employees grow older, so do their parents. “The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2010, the over-65 population will increase to 39 million (14 percent of the total population),” wrote Bette Ann Stead of the University of Houston in Business Horizons last year. “As the over-65 population increases rapidly, business is feeling the effect of employees torn between devotion to their elderly loved ones and devotion to their careers.”

The message is clear: Companies that ignore these converging trends will strap their ability to recruit and retain high-quality employees. “In the 90s and beyond, a hefty salary without concerns about the family and individual needs of the employee may cost a company a good job candidate,” notes Julie Cohen in a recent American Management Association report. “Job candidates know that if Company Z doesn’t offer them child care or flextime, Company Q probably will.”

BEYOND BENEFITS

But prospective employees’ concerns go beyond benefits: According to the Families and Work Institute’s Friedman, “Employees who don’t have a need to use these options today-and may not ever-ask about them for an indication of how the company treats its people.”

As a result, more companies offer family-friendly policies, and many others are taking a look. “Despite the recession, more companies-including Time Warner, Marriott, and BankAmerica-are creating positions for managers of work-family programs,” The Wall Street Journal noted recently.

Exploring and coordinating family/ work initiatives does not mean creating another bureaucracy. Employees are so eager for flexibility they’ll make the program work without a formal organization.

We’ve told employees we understand the tightrope they walk and that the company will strive to accommodate their needs, often on a case-by-case basis.

We’ve given supervisors a list of options (and guidelines for using them), including flextime, a compressed work week, work-at-home arrangements, job sharing, part-time options, excused time, a child and elder care referral service, workshops on family concerns, and educational materials. We’ve also created a policy that formalizes our commitment.

Following is a look at the way some of these initiatives work.

Flextime. This allows employees to select their own working hours within limits set by their supervisors. Most arrangements involve a “core” time when everyone is at the workplace to handle peak workloads, share information, and coordinate projects. Other elements vary, depending on the department’s and employee’s needs. But flextime can also be less formal. One of our newer managers said he came to U S West because of “the family-friendly attitude.”

Not only can flextime boost employee morale and productivity, there are direct benefits to the company. For instance, by offering flextime, one of our offices was able to expand its hours from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., greatly improving customer service at no increased payroll cost.

Compressed workweek. This fits a 40-hour week into a nontraditional schedule, for example, four 10-hour days. Other popular variations include four nine-hour days and one four-hour day; and three 12-hour days and one four-hour day.

I’ve never received (or made) a complaint about employees being difficult to reach because of flextime or compressed work weeks. But I had a lot of complaints about the lack of these options before we offered them.

Work-at-home arrangements. Sometimes called telecommuting, the approach renews an old idea. We had switchboards in employees’ homes 70 years ago. But today, more than 100 U S West employees are telecommuters-some regularly and some only occasionally. Phones, fax machines, and modems make some employees’ distance from the office irrelevant, and telecommuting makes those employees happier.

“Having the option of working at home some days makes a big difference to me,” one of our service strategy managers wrote recently. “Not only am I more efficient, I feel a greater loyalty and commitment to my boss and the company.

“For instance, I may spend the morning working at a laptop computer, then go to my son’s school to volunteer for an hour or two, then be back to the computer for the rest of the day. I get a full day’s work in, while still having the chance to be a parent volunteer. I appreciate the company’s willingness to give me the flexibility to balance my life.”

Job sharing. This permits two employees to share one position; each works part-time. For example, in my company, two managers in the same department became pregnant at about the same time. They proposed a job-sharing arrangement, each working three days a week, after their return from “care-of-newborn-child” leave. An enlightened supervisor agreed to give it a try, and today all three are delighted with the arrangement.

I recently read about two job sharers at American Express who worked together on enrolling college students as cardholders. In 1990, they were responsible for 20 percent of Amex’s new personal accounts.

Part-time arrangements. A part-time system can accommodate employees’ needs while enabling the company to keep valuable people who otherwise might leave. Several years ago, a public relations manager who worked closely with me shocked the organization by announcing he’d like to “go part-time.” When I signed his new job description, I joked that I expected him to be so grateful that I’d get 40 hours’ value for 30 hours’ pay. I did.

Excused time. This initiative allows employees to take time off without pay. Obviously, any time off is most likely to be scheduled during off-peak times and hours. In dozens of cases, this option has worked well for employees, increasing their loyalty while decreasing our payroll costs.

Referral Services. Beyond changing job structure, child care referral services are among the least costly and most-appreciated services a company can provide. Here at US West, we make such resources available to employees through a national resource and referral vendor.

“After unsuccessfully exploring a number of child care options on my own, I called our referral service,” one of my employees recently said. “They referred me to a local resource organization that quickly found three providers that met my criteria. They then helped me formulate the type of questions I needed to ask, to ensure that the quality of care met my son’s needs and our expectations. The rest was up to us, and I appreciated that. Child care is a very personal thing. The referral service helped make me an informed consumer of quality day care services.”

A similar service, elder care referral, is handled by the same firm in much the same way. My mother is 89 and enjoys excellent health. But if she were having health or mobility problems, I’d want quick information on how to help her. So it’s no big mystery that the other people who work here want the same thing.

Workshops. More than 2,000 of our employees have spent their lunchtimes attending family care workshops. We’ve invited child care experts to conduct workshops on a variety of topics, ranging from “Parenting in the 90s: the Changing Family” to “Adolescence is Not a Disease.” Meanwhile, workshops for employees dealing with aging family members include “Caregiver Support Groups” and “Medicare or Medicaid.”

For smaller groups, we provide self-guided workshops on videotape. Some groups use them for lunch-hour and after-work discussion groups.

Occasionally, managers will request family workshops on a problem common to many employees. Such workshops are arranged through our resource and referral vendor. The vendor also offers videotapes, publications, consultations, and other educational materials.

On most family issues, we still have some work to do. When I say “we,” I mean the company, its employees, unions, other companies, educators, consultants, public agencies, and their chief executives. Among those questions as yet unresolved:

  • How can we meet the needs of aging relatives who need different levels of care at different times?
  • What can we do in those communities that have little or no available child care and elder care?
  • How can we improve our support systems for care providers to better meet their emotional needs?
  • How can government and private industry work together to offer flexibility in benefit plans and work arrangements to accommodate child care and elder care concerns?
  • What should we, as a society, do about the financial, as well as the social, issues surrounding child care and elder care? 

ACCEPTING THE CALL

Unless you’re willing to stop accepting calls from your family, you, as a chief executive, must accept the call from employees and society to help deal with these issues. The solutions may be easier than you think. As chief executive, you have to listen to your employees’ concerns. You have to acknowledge that their problems are similar to your own. You have to champion these issues inside the corporation and become a role model. After all, you are the pattern from which the culture is cut.

In short, the awareness and sensitivity of individual managers is the key to successful family/work policies and practices.

The potential payoff is great. For us, the bigger risk was doing nothing about employees’ family/work concerns. A failure to help employees deal with these issues will tax their strength, commitment, and productivity    three things your company needs to succeed in the 90s.

I, for one, am going to keep on taking those family calls.


Richard D. McCormick is CEO and president of U 5 West, an Englewood, CO-based telecommunication firm with annual revenues of $10.5 billion.

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