Corporations Flex for the Family

But critics say they still falter on work-life issues; key is changing culture at work

For corporate America, fall is fast becoming the family-friendly equivalent of the Oscars.

Fortune will soon join Business Week and Working Mother magazines in ranking family-friendly companies - those that offer benefits from child care to flexible hours to dry-cleaning pickup.

Yet even as companies scramble to implement such programs, management experts say most miss the key issue: creating a corporate culture that encourages employees to find the balance of work and family.

The rise in ratings comes as no surprise. "Family friendly" has become a hot topic as employees wrestle with longer hours in a downsized business climate. And with an ever tightening labor market, these highly competitive lists work well for recruitment.

Yet researchers say such programs usually aid only a select group of employees and often come with negative career repercussions attached.

"The management styles and attitudes are really key in making the environment family friendly," says Bonnie Michaels, president of Managing Work & Family, a consulting firm in Evanston, Ill. "Companies can have programs and policies and services, but if it's not acceptable to take care of [personal] issues then people won't use them."

To their credit, companies have made significant strides on the family-friendly front in recent years. But the decline of the Ozzie and Harriet lifestyle has left workers screaming for time.

Time squeeze

"I've yet to hear of an official policy in a workplace that accommodates people's personal needs," says one worker who is an art director for a medical journal in Washington and a single mother of a six-year-old son. "Parents just do what they have to under the table, with the understanding that if you work for the wrong person you pay big consequences for that."

While her company doesn't have an official flexible policy, because she works in a small office, she says she's able to occasionally change her hours when needed.

Still it's not easy. On this particular day, her son is at the office because of a child-care emergency. "The workplace does have to change to accommodate people's needs for flexibility in their schedule," she contends.

Experts say companies need to look at how work gets done and how workers are rewarded - whether they're promoted based on how much time they spend at the office or the quality of work they produce.

The result can improve both workers' personal lives and productivity.

"Most companies don't know how to think about work and family in anything but an adversarial way," says Lotte Bailyn, a consultant and management professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. "They think, 'If I help my business I hurt my employees and vice versa.' But these need not be trade-offs. They can be complementary."

Affirming respect for workers

Baxter International, a medical technology manufacturer based in Deerfield, Ill., recently started down this path.

Three years ago, Baxter decided to revaluate its work-life policies and find out what programs would help its 14,000 employees.

After extensive surveys, it discovered that employees didn't want more programs, they wanted respect.

"Lack of respect meant a lack of recognition by management that they had responsibilities outside of work," says Alice Campbell, Baxter's work-life manager.

So the company asked workers what mangers could do to create a more supportive work culture.

Among the findings:

Communicate that work-related "social engagements are clearly optional; eliminate weekend and evening meetings; limit the amount of time employees are expected to listen to voice mail during evenings, weekends, and vacations....

"We learned that there are things companies can do, large and small, that can impact people's work-life conflicts without having to spend tons of money," Ms. Campbell says.

Another company, Ernst & Young, has undertaken a small, but significant, step to help erode employee anxieties about using flexible work arrangements.

On April 15 the giant accounting firm launched a flexible work-arrangements database. It profiles more than 400 employees, from staff to partners, who telecommute, work part-time, or work a compressed work week.

The company hopes the new initiative will improve retention.

"We, like every other employer, lose people every year who feel that they can't work the kind of jobs they have with us and still have a meaningful life outside of work," says Deborah Holmes, who chairs the company's new retention task force. "We want to point out that you can work flexibly and succeed here."

But it's not easy to change a company's culture.

Business Week's surveys of companies draw telling responses. One worker tore up the survey and mailed the pieces to the magazine. And some companies decline to participate, fearing that making the list will incite a worker backlash.

Will issue fade?

Some in the field say they're concerned that companies are losing steam.

"I worry that this has been an issue that has been in vogue for a while ... and that something else will pop up and companies will check off work and family," says Ellen Bankert of Boston College's Center on Work & Family, which helps compile Business Week's list.

Yet others contend that companies eventually will be forced to respond.

"I'm really predicting," says Ms. Michaels, "that we're going to have some kind of parent revolution in the next 10 years unless companies really commit to more flexibility and time for people."

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