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The Value of Most Programs Far Exceeds Their Use

May 1, 1994
Related Topics: Work/Life Balance, Featured Article
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The report card completed by the Personnel Journal Work/ Family Advisory Board is, by its nature, subjective. Several studies have been conducted by organizations to determine whether their investment in work/family initiatives was worthwhile; our intention was not to replicate those quantitative studies.

Instead, our goal was to ask the nation's experts in work/family issues whether, in their opinion, today's work/family initiatives are successful. Our goal was to get an overview of the situation, so that readers could get a sense of whether their own efforts were on track. In short, the report card reflects collective wisdom, not "proof."

Because the report card is subjective, we did not give our panelists a point system to follow in determining their grades. We did, however offer some guidelines for them to consider in reaching their conclusions.

In considering the value of specific initiatives to the company, we asked them to consider whether various options in general were successful in meeting corporate goals. Do these efforts have a demonstrable return on investment? Do they help companies attract and/or retain employees? Do they help increase productivity, because employees are better able to focus on work tasks or miss fewer days?

In evaluating the value of these initiatives to employees, we asked them to consider whether these efforts did, indeed, make it easier for employees to balance the demands of work and family. Are the programs helpful to many employees or only to a select few? Are they very helpful to those employees that benefit (even if it's a relatively small group) or only moderately helpful to many? Are they affordable? Are they convenient? Do they help workers focus on their jobs and miss fewer days?

Finally, in evaluating use, we asked them to consider both how much these various initiatives were being used by employers, and how much employees took advantage of them when they were available, not whether they were available and without consideration of their relative value.

The report card shows flexible arrangements make the biggest difference.
The grades that the panel of experts gave to work/family initiatives on the report card are mixed—ranging from an F for the availability and use of on-site intergenerational care to a solid A for the value to employees of telecommuting. Generally, marks are high when it comes to the value of popular programs to business and to employees. However, they're low when it comes to frequency of use. Here are some significant results:

Value of flexible work arrangements.
The panel graded the value of the flexible work arrangements listed on the report as good to excellent (B+ to A) for both employers and employees. No question, flexible work arrangements make the biggest difference as people juggle work and home-life commitments.

Value of dependent care. Authorities gave the following programs B- to A- grades for their value to both employers and employees: holiday and summer care, on-site day care, vouchers/tuition reimbursement, education and assistance on elder care, family leave, adoption assistance, relocation assistance and policies relating to nontraditional families. (Child-care resource-and-referral is noticeably absent here because of tremendous variations in services provided under the umbrella of R&R. However, when R&R includes education, counseling and more comprehensive services, experts rate it highly.) Interestingly, the only category listed under dependent care ranking excellent value to companies is collaboration with other organizations.

Other dependent-care categories (except on-site intergenerational care) rate good or above average to both companies and individuals.

Use of programs.
Regardless of value to company and employee, use of all the alternatives listed on the report card is poor. In fact, nothing on the Use side of the report card rates above a C, and except for child care resource-and-referral (frequently the first family-friendly program companies establish), and dependent-care savings accounts, dependent-care programs rank C-, D or fail in frequency of use. Similarly, in the "Flexible Work Arrangements" category, only flexible work hours and prorated days off garner even average marks. Everything else is deficient.

Why are alternatives for balancing work/family responsibilities valued but virtually unused? The report card didn't specifically address that question. But our panel suggests three contributing factors:

  • Alternatives aren't available
  • When alternatives are available, employees aren't made aware of them
  • If alternatives are available, and effective communication tools allow people to understand them, employees believe it will jeopardize their careers to use them.

Generally, our experts agree that corporate America gets passing grades programmatically, especially for specific areas of dependent care. But, based on our experts' opinions, U.S. businesses fail dismally in taking a long-term, integrated approach to work/family balance.

Personnel Journal, May 1994, Vol.73, No. 5, p. 74.

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