Companies Learn to Help Employees With Families

A Boston-based firm advises on day care, nursing homes, and more

ONE of the first things a visitor notices after entering the lobby of Work/Family Directions is two before-and-after photographs tacked to the wall. The one on the left shows six beaming expectant mothers. Next to it, the same six women appear several months later - this time holding their infants.

Those aren't the only pictures in the offices of this Boston company. Walk through the hallways, and it's hard to find a wall that is not lined with photographs of employees and their families.

Such an emphasis on family in the business world is a bit unusual. But, at this company work and family issues go together like milk and cookies. Here, for example, employees are reimbursed for child-care expenses when they travel or work late. They have the option of working at home if it's more convenient. Last year the company hired a woman who was five months pregnant. After four months on the job and then maternity leave, she now works one day at home. These benefits have earned the company a spot o n Working Mother magazine's list of the 100 best companies to work for in the United States.

Work/Family's mission is to convince corporate America that helping employees deal with family issues and allowing them to be more flexible makes good business sense.

"Businesses can't just put this to the side because the costs will be enormous," says Fran Sussner Rodgers, CEO of Work/Family Directions. "The failure of this country to really tap the potential and productivity of people with talent who want to contribute and also want to take care of their families has got to be one of the greatest productivity drains we've got."

WORK/Family Directions creates and manages dependent-care programs for more than 100 companies, including IBM, AT&T, and American Express. Services range from advice on where to find appropriate day care and elder care to a counselor-staffed telephone consulting service that helps parents motivate their children, solve learning problems, and select schools. Work/Family also trains managers to be sensitive to family issues and conducts research on the changing demographics of the labor force.

Ms. Rodgers launched her dependent-care consulting business from her home in Watertown, Mass., in 1978 after she was unable to juggle part-time work and the care of her ill toddler daughter. She gained her first big client in 1983 when IBM asked her to develop a nationwide day-care referral service for its employees. With start-up funds from IBM, Rodgers set up a team and a database. Soon, other Fortune 500 companies knocked on her door. Rodgers and her husband, Charles, who runs the research arm of the company, moved the headquarters to Boston in 1990. The business, which has offices in San Francisco and Chicago, has grown from eight employees and $2 million in revenue to 240 employees and nearly $40 million in revenue. A number of smaller competitors have also cropped up.

"The market [for helping employees deal with family issues] is pretty big, and it's untapped," Rodgers says.

Indeed, only about 7,000 of the 78,000 United States companies with more than 100 workers offer employees some form of child-care support such as referral services for day care, on-site day care, or after-school programs, according to Families and Work Institute, a New York research and consulting firm.

Yet child care is a pressing need for many employees. In a 1991-92 study of 10 companies conducted by Families and Work Institute, 33 to 66 percent of employees reported difficulty locating child care.

Child care is just one segment of the market, however. Experts in work and family issues say the need for elder care will explode in the next decade.

About 10 percent of employees today are responsible for an aging relative, says Dana Friedman, co-president of Families and Work Institute. Based on employee expectations in companies she's surveyed, that figure will jump to 40 percent by 1997. "It is going to be huge," Ms. Friedman says. "And we find that there's a more significant work impact from elder care than child care because it's not just [finding] a place to put your elderly relative. It's medical, and legal, and health, and in-home [services],

and transportation."

Although the number of companies providing employees with dependent-care programs is still relatively small, there are encouraging trends.

"About six years ago [corporate emphasis on] work-family issues was nearly nonexistent, and now a lot of companies have work-family managers," says Michael Wheeler, research associate at the Conference Board, a New York research firm. "And we found that despite tough economic times many companies are still expanding their programs and recognizing that these are not just women's issues."

Rodgers says the slowest progress has been in the area of flexibility. "It's pretty stuck," she says. "The number of people who actually have a reasonable amount of control over their time and work is very small despite all the rhetoric."

Work/Family Directions is not just a job for Rodgers or the other employees who work here. "Each one of us is drawn here because of its mission," says Phyllis Swersky, the company's president. "It's a company that cares about people."

Jackie Dufresne is an employee of John Hancock, which purchased Work/Family's day-care referral services. She called the service to find appropriate day care for her two children when she moved from New Hampshire to Massachusetts. "I was completely overwhelmed and had no idea what was around," she says. "They basically did the groundwork for me. They alleviated hours and hours of time and made the whole process easier."

Says Rodgers: "I've listened for 20 years to women, especially, who are trying to have careers and take care of families. To see how totally unsupported they are by both their communities and their work places, the toll is enormous. And it's stupid because it's fixable."

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