Firms Share Ideas On Family Policies

EMPLOYERS in New England who want to offer family-oriented benefits are hearing a reassuring message these days: You don't have to reinvent the wheel.

That message is coming from an unusual new group, the New England Work and Family Association, a consortium that enables companies to share successful strategies for balancing work and family. Rather than wandering solo through a maze of possible benefits and policies on everything from dependent care to flextime, members can profit from the experience of others.

"It's an opportunity for them to do one-stop shopping," explains Elizabeth Hirschhorn, director of the association. "At this point in the work-family field, there's no need for companies to go out and come up with something original. There are good practices to model after and good people to talk to. We can tell them about successful programs, which they can tailor to their specific needs."

Sponsored by the Center on Work and Family at Boston University and funded in part through a grant from the United Way of Massachusetts Bay, the collaboration has already attracted more than 75 companies, ranging in size from 300 employees to 10,000.

It is modeled after the only other such group in the nation, a California coalition called One Small Step. Based in San Francisco, this six-year-old program serves nearly 100 employers in the Bay Area.

These associations reflect the latest developments in what has been called the work-family revolution. In the beginning, employers focused primarily on child care. Now, according to Judith David, director of One Small Step, they are broadening their focus to include alternative work schedules - telecommuting, compressed work weeks, job sharing.

"Employees are telling employers that they want time," explains Ms. David. "People want more of a sense of control over their time and more time with their families."

Even the terminology is changing as some companies refer to these as "life-balance issues" rather than simply work-family issues. That broader definition, says Ms. Hirschhorn, acknowledges "the nonwork responsibilities of all employees." An unmarried worker might have a parent to care for, she explains, or civic activities that require time.

Although David worried initially that budget-tightening during the recession would halt the progress some companies were making, she is pleased that membership in One Small Step has continued to grow.

"Some companies have used the recession as an opportunity," she says. "They're developing new work-and-family programs as a signal that the company still cares about its employees. It doesn't mean that because there are fewer dollars available these programs have to stop."

Yet employers everywhere share a common problem: the need to change attitudes. In a recent poll of members at One Small Step, management training headed a list of forthcoming efforts.

At Digital Equipment Corporation in Maynard, Mass., a charter member of the New England consortium, Laurie Margolies, employee-relations program manager, sees that need firsthand. Speaking of a "frozen middle" among managers, she says, "A lot of companies have very strong senior managers who are supportive of work-family programs. But they don't have middle managers who either understand the importance of them or behave in such a way to illustrate their understanding."

David agrees, saying, "You can have all kinds of programs in place, but if supervisors don't understand these issues and aren't sensitive to them, it doesn't matter what you have on the books if attitudes aren't changed."

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