Tight job market forces companies to coddle workers

Businesses try flex time, mentoring, and concierge services to retain

In one of the tightest labor markets since World War II, companies across the United States are going to extraordinary lengths to retain workers - offering everything from on-site shirt-laundering services to special lounges for Gen-Xers.

While companies have long been scrambling to recruit workers from the outside, many are now putting increased emphasis on keeping the engineers and accountants they have. It is leading to fundamental changes in workplace culture.

Behind the corporate coddling is the lowest unemployment rate in 30 years - 4.2 percent. Companies not only need to keep their cubicles full as business expands. They're also trying to prevent workers from jumping to other firms at the drop of a bigger bonus. Workplace piracy, in some sectors, has become as intense as anytime since Blackbeard.

"The job market is Spandex tight," says AT&T personnel expert Burke Stinson. "It's hard to hold on to promising workers because other companies have open doors."

"Just about every call we are getting these weeks is about employee retention," says Caela Farren, president of MasteryWorks Inc., a human resource consulting-education firm based in Annandale, Va.

As a result, businesses are taking unusual, and uncharacteristic, steps. Take Massachusetts Financial Services Co., a mutual-fund pioneer in buttoned-down Boston. Last spring, in an effort to become more employee-friendly, the firm introduced "casual Friday," allowing workers to leave their pumps and pin stripes at home. Then casual Friday became a casual summer. Now the company's 2,500 employees can wear "business casual" clothing - not jeans or halter tops - any day of the week.

Layoffs persist, too

To be sure, many companies are still laying off people. Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a Chicago outplacement firm that tracks downsizings, reckons that US employers have announced 495,510 jobs cuts so far this year. That is 38 percent higher than in the first eight months of 1998, a record year.

At the same time, however, companies are striving to attract and keep their workers with not just more pay and the standard package of health and pension benefits but a host of other techniques. For example:

*At Lands' End Inc., part-timers who pitch in at the fall-to-Christmas rush can make use year-round of an $8 million "activity center" at its Dodgeville, Wis., headquarters. It includes a swimming pool, gymnasium, racquetball court, and aerobics room.

They can also put their children into company-sponsored summer camps. With that and other benefits, Kelly Ritchie, human-resources manager at the catalog clothier, hopes to bring back some 800 temporary workers this season - part of the 2,600 she needs to attract.

The company also has 23 work start times to accommodate its employees. "People give us their schedules and we work around within them," says Ms. Ritchie.

*At AT&T, 29 percent of managers work at home one day per week. The telecommunications company spends $600 million a year on in-company education and training to improve the "employability" of its workers. Another $20 million pays for courses at colleges.

With all the downsizings in recent years, employees want to feel they are learning new skills that could help them get a new job. But Mr. Stinson and other human-resource experts say the educational process actually helps retain employees. They feel valued and respected.

AT&T also has a formal "golden rule" for its bosses and employees: Treat others as you would like to be treated. This rule, says Stinson, helps workers deal with diversity, harassment, and boss-subordinate issues.

"The No. 1 reason people are leaving companies is that they don't trust or respect their managers," notes Ms. Farren.

*The NPD Group, a market-research firm based in Washington, N.Y., has set up a formalized mentor program. Employees can choose the individual they think will help them better manage their goals and initiatives, says Vicky Niems, human-resources manager.

This is part of a program that has "paid off" in lowering employee turnover and improving morale, she says. Employees must spell out with their manager a career-development plan, which includes specifying a replacement in their present position. Employees rotate assignments every two years or so to learn more.

Management provides as much flexibility in work hours as feasible. Sometimes this involves a compressed work week or working partly at home. Instead of sick days and vacation days, employees get a "time bank." They can take that number of days off in a year without specifying why they're doing so.

"We don't ask," says Ms. Niems.

Hundreds of noncash techniques are being using to keep employees satisfied. Many deal with the time shortage faced by two working parent families and single parents with kids. Others attempt to satisfy workers' common desire to feel valued and make career progress.

San Diego consultant and author Robert Nelson speaks of the need to make jobs more satisfying. That can often be done by involving workers in decisionmaking, especially when it affects their jobs. He also points to a survey finding that 66 percent of employees would give up part of their base salary if they had flexibility in their work hours. It ranks higher than health benefits for most employees.

Flex time 'boomerang' awards

At TRW Inc. in San Diego, he notes, employees can work nine-hour days and take off every other Friday. "Do this a few times, and pretty soon you really like it," says Mr. Nelson.

At the American Automobile Association office in San Diego, employees successfully completing a project can "dump a dog." They can give another project they don't like to their manager to complete. This, says Nelson, gets managers more involved with staff.

A San Francisco high-technology firm gives departing employees a grand send-off and a "boomerang award." One end cites the date of departure; the other end is blank for date of return.

One key to keeping employees, says Farren, author of "Who's Running Your Career," is for bosses to appreciate the uniqueness of their staff members, to assess their individual capabilities, and align their aspirations with the needs of the company.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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