Work_Family's Failing Grade Why Today's Initiatives Aren't Enough
But, while that whiz-bang technology hurtles us forward, work/family issues are in a 1980s time warp. At the same time that technology frees us to have greater flexibility and autonomy, when it comes to work/family balance, corporate cultures are largely inflexible.
Sure, there are a lot of new programs, encouraging our experts. Indeed, a handful of visionaries and innovative organizations are setting standards. But systemic change is as rare as an office without computers. Managers still guard employees who are tethered to their desks from nine to five. Millions of employees still break into a sweat when their children have a fever or school is closed because of snow. People still prefer to say they have car trouble rather than child-care problems. Workers still get little support in caring for their elderly parents, school-age children or teens. People don't believe they can take leave or use flex time without jeopardizing their careers.
Personnel Journal wondered why. We asked: Just how far has corporate America come with regard to work/family issues? Which programs are of greatest value to employees? Which ones benefit companies? How frequently do businesses use specific work/family strategies? What are the obstacles?
We wanted to know if American business is at a crossroads, as some experts suggest. What is the business case for recognizing the impact of personal lives in the workplace? Can organizations empower employees for the benefit of work-related activities and not expect them to want greater personal freedom and autonomy? What responsibilities fall to employees and to the public sector? Are organizations on the cusp of quantum change? Indeed, is human resources even asking the right questions?
To answer some of these questions, Personnel Journal formed a Work/ Family Advisory Board of 13 acknowledged experts, including HR professionals, academics and consultants (see "Who's Who on Personnel Journal's Work/Family Advisory Board"). We also spoke with politicians and industry analysts. We developed a report card and asked each expert to grade corporate America—A through F—on a variety of work/family initiatives. The experts graded each initiative on its value to the company and to the employee, and then they graded the frequency with which these options are used.
We compiled their grades and translated them into averages. We then gave them a chance to explain their assessments and speak out on issues. Their scores and ideas serve to benchmark what's working and what isn't. The report card serves as a tool to stimulate discussion, and by its very nature is subjective (see, "The Value of Most Programs Far Exceeds Their Use").
Our initial goal in creating the report card was to determine which programs work best, both in terms of employee satisfaction and return on investment. Our naive theory was that some program or programs work best, and that it would be useful to the HR community to identify them. In fact, experts suggest that some programs do work better than others and many programs have critical value.
Ultimately, however, it doesn't matter as much as we thought it would. Instead, the process of researching this story led to some surprising discoveries. We learned that our initial question, although not wrong, was incomplete. In the interviews that explored the grades that were assigned on the report card, we learned that the prevailing strategy—imposing new programs on old systems—never will be wholly successful. Indeed, the experts suggest that nothing less than a fearless examination of fundamental corporate values—and the societal values they reflect—is called for.
That assertion is unsettling, dramatic and ahead of its time. Some will find it outrageous. Yet the wisdom offered by our panel of experts is hard to ignore. It simply makes sense that if the ways in which employees work—and the very work that employees do—are changing, and families are changing, then the ways in which employees manage their family and life commitments also are changing.
Clearly, then, any meaningful understanding of the issue begins with an understanding of the work force.
Today's work force requires synchronicity between home- and job-life.
According to New York City-based Catalyst, females make up 45.6% of the working population, and one of the fastest-growing segments of the work force is women who have young children. In fact, 40% of all women in the labor force have children under 18. Looking at it another way, of women who have children younger than 18 years old, 67.2% hold jobs. This is up 20% since 1975. On top of that, the percentage of men who have wives in the workplace has increased dramatically, and single fathers now are among one of the fastest-growing segments of the work force.
At the same time, the population is aging. The Boston-based consulting firm Work/Family Directions Inc. indicates that 16% of workers have elder-care responsibilities, and that figure will escalate during the next three to four years.
The data point to the perennial challenge: A changing work force means organizations must help people manage their multiple responsibilities. But numbers don't illustrate the urgency. They don't show the frantic early-morning rush as parents whisk kids out of bed, feed them, and drop them off at school, all the while worrying that a tardy child will make them late for work. Statistics don't show the split-second timing that workers live with daily—the knotting stomachs from traffic jams that mean their child will be the last one picked up at day care. They don't depict mothers and fathers who fidget in late afternoon meetings because they can't get to a phone to be sure their school-age child arrived safely at home, or the ones who lie to their supervisors because the babysitter is late.
The Conference Board
Data can't capture the angst of worrying about an elderly relative, of agonizing over mounds of indecipherable paperwork to receive scant elder-care assistance. Figures don't portray the anxiety employees encounter in daily conflict between their work and family responsibilities.
The numbers aren't percentages; they're human beings. And, as companies search for ways to attract and retain good employees—productive human beings—they must address their concerns.
What's being done?
As the report card suggests, progressive companies already have begun addressing these issues by implementing programs. Their actions have propelled work/family issues into the mainstream agenda, making them legitimate business concerns. Dependent-care benefits are standard now at many companies, and flexibility policies have grown—most dramatically within the last five years—even as business suffered a downturn. In fact, recent years have shown that family-friendly policies increase during downsizings, mergers and acquisitions.
Ellen Galinsky, co-president of New York City-based Families and Work Institute and a foremost authority in the field, says: "If you think back 10 years ago, it's amazing that anything is happening because there was such a staunch conviction that family problems should be left at home."
All you have to do is look at the Corporate Reference Guide to Work/Family Programs by Galinsky and colleagues Dana Friedman and Carol Hernandez to know something is happening. The 1991 study, sponsored by Families and Work Institute, surveyed 188 of the largest companies in 30 industries from aerospace to utilities. In the study, almost all major businesses acknowledge that employees need help to balance work and family responsibilities. Of these companies, 100% offer maternity leave, 88% offer part-time work (70% have written policies), 77% offer flextime (most with a band of one to two hours), 48% have job-sharing arrangements (although formal policies are rare) and 68% said they're developing or seriously considering new programs.
In addition, an estimated 5,600 employers provide child-care support, and 300 of these provide elder-care support, according to the study. Based on the study's results, quality child care—not just any child care—is on the agenda.
"These kinds of solutions do matter," acknowledges Galinsky. "For example, people who have more child-care breakdowns are more stressed; those who pay a higher proportion of their family income for child care have more conflict."
Just look at the statistics: Twenty-five percent of employees who have children under age 12 experience child-care breakdowns two to five times every three months. This translates into higher absenteeism, tardiness and lower concentration. In fact, according to a survey for Fortune magazine by Galinsky and Diane Hughes, the average worker loses between seven and nine work days a year; approximately half of these absences may be due to family problems. Presumably if companies have more programs that meet the needs of workers and lessen their stress, these drops in productivity will diminish as well.
Work/family initiatives address business as well as employee needs.
Leading advocates know that demonstrating a strong business case for work/family initiatives means forward momentum. Research by Work/Family Directions asserts that spending $1 on family-resource programs yields more than $2 in direct-cost savings. Catalyst's Marcia Brumit Kropf confirms this. "We found such a direct connection between retaining experienced women and offering reduced-work arrangements that it's very important for companies to think about," says Brumit Kropf, who is vice president of research and advisory services.
To establish such facts, some leading companies are participating in research themselves. Thirty percent of the companies making up The Conference Board's Work and Family Research and Advisory Panel have evaluated their programs to measure the impact on retention of valuable employees, improved productivity, reduced employee stress and increased employee effectiveness. Some of these companies—especially the large companies—have discovered advantages and have responded. In fact, nearly 90% say they've increased or improved programs since 1991.
A good example is New Brunswick, New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson Co., manufacturer of health-care products and an acknowledged leader in advancing the work/family agenda. The company's Balancing Work and Family Program consists of a range of 11 programs, including: child- and elder-care resource-and-referral, on-site child-development centers, flexible work schedules and paid time off for short-term emergency care. More significantly, company management devotes resources to teach its family-friendly philosophy to managers and supervisors.
Evaluations in 1990 and 1992 by the company revealed that training and adapting corporate culture makes a big difference. During a financially tough period for Johnson & Johnson—when people were working longer hours and jobs were more demanding because of the economy—employees were more likely to say that company culture and their individual supervisors were understanding of competing needs of their job and family life. People indicated that they felt supervisors were responsive to those issues and supported flexible time arrangements and leave policies. In the 1992 study, 53% indicated that they believed work/family policies improved the day-to-day work environment and that their jobs interfered less with family life. Employees were more loyal to the company, were more satisfied with their jobs, and overall, were less stressed. Furthermore, the programs were important in their decision to stay at Johnson & Johnson.
Marriott International, based in Washington, D.C., is another organization that evaluates work/family issues in a business perspective. The giant in the hospitality industry began implementing core companywide work/family solutions approximately five years ago. Moreover, Marriott's focus remains unique: delivering services to lower-income workers. The company is creating new alternatives for these employees. "One of the most important things we've learned is the complexities that exist in the lives of our field population," says Donna Klein, director of work/life programs. "Most of the work/family solutions are focused at a fairly sophisticated population in terms of education and ability to pay. Those solutions break down as family income decreases."
The business case for these field workers is somewhat different from that for higher wage earners. Certainly recruiting and retention is important, but it isn't as costly as it would be to recruit and retain an engineer. The cost justification is customer service. Corporate staff at headquarters doesn't directly deliver quality; the people who work in the hotels and restaurants do.
Tackling a new population of workers brings new complications. "It's different when you're asking people to pay for child care and it means choosing between putting food on the table and caring for their children," says Klein. "The most valuable services for these employees are the ones in the community."
But, to help link employees to community services is an overwhelming task. Each community is different, employees tend to move around, and language is a factor. "This is a whole new realm of work/life issues," says Klein. "We're just starting to figure it out. But, certainly, the way we've done business in the past needs to be radically changed."
Businesses need healthy communities to thrive.
Most often, large companies such as Marriott lead the way in developing work/family policies. This doesn't have to be the case, however. Researchers from the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration and its Graduate School of Business studied Fel-Pro, Inc., an Illinois-based manufacturer of automotive-sealing products. The company only has approximately 2,000 employees, but provides myriad life-cycle benefits, including on-site child care, summer day camp and college scholarships for employees' children. (Cost of a work/family benefits package at Fel-Pro is $700 per employee per year.)
Families and Work Institute
Researchers wanted to know if family-responsive policies had any effect on important, non-traditional aspects of performance, such as voluntary behaviors that show initiative and willingness to participate in organizational change. The study verified that employees who use work/family programs have the highest job-performance evaluations—traditional and non-traditional—and the highest commitment to the company. They are good citizens at work who help out co-workers and supervisors and volunteer for activities. The more workers use Fel Pro's benefits, the more they participate in changes taking place at the company, and the more they support company efforts towards total quality improvement. More importantly, 92% say they appreciate the benefits, recognizing that they make it easier to balance their work and personal lives.
"We characterized it as a culture of mutual commitment between employee and employer. That's how it's translated into work performance," says Susan J. Lambert, principal investigator. The research demonstrates that Fel-Pro's family-responsive policies send a message about the kind of company it is: Show that people are valued, and in turn people respond, she says.
Lambert says that the programs positively affect work performance, flexibility and openness to organizational change. "All day long, workers make decisions about whether they're going to go that extra step, whether they're going to put in that extra effort for a customer," she says. "[Having the programs] affects how they'll respond to total quality management, participation in quality circles and submission of suggestions. All that is voluntary."
As with Fel-Pro, most companies start work/family programs in direct response to an emerging business need. Michael Wheeler of the Conference Board has seen improvement in this area during the last five years. "The work-and-family field is expanding. Programs are taking on a broader focus because companies recognize that these issues go beyond preschoolers. They include elder care, school-age child care and flexibility."
These are important areas to explore. For instance, there are more than 20 million children between 10 and 15 years old who are woefully underserved. School-age child care is just beginning to be a visible problem. A recent Conference Board survey showed that child care for school-age children is a growing concern for corporate leaders. It may be in the experimental stage, but at least 80% say that the business case for taking care of this need is as compelling as it is for preschool care.
"We're starting to make headway in child care and elder care. These aren't perceived as women's issues anymore," says Karen Leibold, director of Work/ Family Programs at Cambridge, Massachusetts-based The Stride Rite Corp. She should know. Her company is one of a handful that operate intergenerational centers for seniors and children. The Intergenerational Day Care Center provides 79 day-care slots for children 15 months old to 6 years old and people older than 60; half of the spaces are reserved for low-income elders and children.
But, she adds, "We're at a crossroads as to how we're going to respond [to the increasing family needs of workers.] It isn't even in the hands of individual companies anymore. It's going to take a national effort."
Some of that effort is beginning. Collaboration among businesses, non-profit organizations and community agencies is a future trend. Witness the American Business Collaboration for Quality Dependent Care, a turning point in collaboration that brings together 137 organizations and funds them with $26.3 million. The partnership will increase quality and supply of infant-, child-, and elder-care services in 25 states. The catalyst was Armonk, New York-based International Business Machines Corp. in consultation with Work/Family Directions. Other leaders of the group include Allstate Insurance Co., American Express Co., Amoco Corp., AT&T Co., Eastman Kodak Co, Exxon Corp., Johnson & Johnson, Motorola Inc., Travelers Cos. and Xerox Corp. Even some very small companies participate. Scitor Corp., a Silicon Valley software company, for example, has only 180 employees.
The partnership is a huge move forward. It creates a community response. After its first year, the impact was immense. The project funded 153 school-age child-care programs, 22 projects for the elderly and 110 programs for infants, toddlers and preschoolers.
"This kind of leadership should be applauded," says Ellen Gannett, the associate director of the School-age Child-care Project at the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women in Wellesley, Massachusetts. "It's visionary. Although research may not be able to quantify these programs as an effort-equals-output one-to-one correlation, these aren't altruistic efforts; they're business issues."
Gannett says it goes far beyond employee productivity. "A community that's healthy, where families and children—and employees—are thriving because they feel aided by services, supports business. Where there's violence, poor education, fear and a sense of helplessness, businesses don't do well. Healthy communities are where businesses thrive."
What are the barriers?
If work/ family initiatives improve employee morale, productivity, retention and recruitment, alternatives to help people cope with their multiple roles should be as common—and handy—as cellular phones. Programs should exist for all ages and for people at all income brackets. They should be available in small companies as well as large. But this isn't so.
And why not? Some companies cite cost as a factor, rationalizing that programs are just too expensive to implement and maintain. But it's more than cost: It's culture.
Says Representative Patricia Schroeder (D-Colorado): "There's an attitude in this country that you shouldn't have children unless you can afford them; that there should be someone staying home full time to care for them. If you don't have that [care], then you aren't supposed to have [children]."
Part of the reason that this attitude prevails, Schroeder says, is because most CEOs and decision makers still have traditional families. "It's hard to understand these issues if you've had a wife in the traditional sense to handle these problems. When [the executives] hear 'child care,' they think 'babysitting.' It isn't the same urgency."
Unfortunately, this parochial attitude is ingrained in our culture. "It's a deeply held belief that responding to family issues is inconsistent with business results," says Fran Sussner Rodgers, founder and CEO of Work/Family Directions. "That's despite the fact that research shows it to be either positive or neutral in terms of business strategy. It's culturally rooted. We've gone about as far as we can go without getting more jugular; without examining our attitudes."
That examination must begin with a hard look at the gap between the policies and theories and the actual practice. For example, business is exceedingly resistant when it comes to flexibility. Witness a 1993 Work/Family Directions study of 80 top U.S. corporations, employing 2.4 million workers. Although 85% of these companies say they offer flexible work programs, fewer than 2% of employees use telecommuting, job sharing and part-time schedules, and only 24% use flextime. Furthermore, only half of the companies have written policies regarding their flexible work options, and even then, most policies are subject to the discretion of managers.
One essential flaw in the system is the concept of face time: the antiquated notion that productivity and loyalty can be measured by how many hours a day you work at the office. "It's almost unconscious how people are evaluated," says Rodgers. "It goes beyond face time. It's the way people are thought about in terms of ambition and how they'll be developed in the future." Appraisal systems, compensation systems and career-management systems all reinforce the old attitudes.
One would think that if companies offer flexible work arrangements and family supports (such as leave) to help employees cope during difficult phases of their lives, people would take advantage of them. However, the system puts pressure on high performers because everyone knows they run the risk of being seen as not serious. As a result, they either don't take advantage of work/family supports or they're never developed fully and may eventually leave the company.
—Fran Sussner Rodgers,
Work/Family Directions Inc.
This comes out in palpable frustration from employees who want to contribute more at work but can't because they need help with their dependent care. They need more flexibility and control over the hours and conditions of work, and they need a corporate culture in which they aren't punished because they have families.
Data on flexibility are so clear that it's astounding that it isn't the accepted mode of doing business. Consider Charlotte, North Carolina-based NationsBank's pilot program launched in 1987 for professionals who wanted to work part time. It was so successful that the next year, the company extended the program throughout the company, renaming part-time to SelectTime. The program retained valuable employees. Two-thirds of the associates said they would have left the bank rather than continue full time, and 70% of them have been at the bank for at least five years. Nearly everyone interviewed reported that the program reduces stress; most associates and their managers stated that they were more efficient and effective than when they worked full time because they were more focused and spent less time on non-work activities.
Although a recent Catalyst study found flexible work arrangements more common and more formalized than they were in 1989, many companies still don't offer flexible work arrangements at all. Brumit Kropf will tell you that most often effective alternatives depend on a supportive manager. "People are aware of these issues, but they don't know how to [carry them out]," she says. "They come up against barriers within the structure of the organization that keep them from implementing these things."
For example, a firm driven on billable hours poses tremendous problems. If the company uses a head-count system instead of a full-time equivalent system, managers look less productive to leadership if they have part-timers. Another culprit? Payroll systems that automatically trigger overtime pay if someone works more than eight hours in one day. In that scenario, an employee and supervisor may agree on a flexible schedule, but can't work within the system.
Training is imperative for both managers and employees.
Organizational structures aren't the only obstacles, however. More often, people are. For example, managers aren't trained to work within flexible arrangements. Neither are workers. Take a look at telecommuting. It's a classic conflict of reality butting up against tradition. People often are more productive at home than in the office. They have fewer interruptions from co-workers and the freedom to work when energy is highest. However, because most organizations don't judge employees on performance, traditional underlying fears prevail. Managers wonder how to be sure employees are working if they can't see them.
"It's difficult for managers to readjust; to deal with employees who come and go at different times, who might be working at home for some of the time," says Brumit Kropf. "They have to re-think how to monitor work progress. It isn't just related to hours in the office. They have to rethink how they share information, how they arrange meetings, how work flows."
Other real-life questions present themselves, too. How do managers help develop teams at the same time that part of the work force is off site? How do they replicate the casual information exchange over the water cooler? How do they keep people in the loop when they're out of sight?
It comes back to fundamental change. Flexible work hours have been around for a long time, but traditionally have been used only on a special-case basis. Flexibility has been handed out to the privileged few, to the best people as a perk. That's different from allowing an entire department flexibility. Moving from an informal to a formal policy causes a lot of anxiety.
"There are still lots of misconceptions about the effectiveness of working at home," says Karol Rose, principal for Work/Family at Fort Lee, New Jersey-based Kwasha Lipton and author of Work & Family: Program Models and Policies. "Another misconception is that people think they can handle child care while they work at home. They can't."
She says that what people really need to deal with is gaining control over their lives. If flexible hours give people control to work in synch with their biological clocks, they accomplish more; if they work better when there aren't so many distractions, they get more done. Flexibility gives people a sense of control and autonomy.
Rose cautions that workers need to be taught to use flex hours successfully. They need to think through the problems that might arise, how they're going to organize themselves and where they will work. It requires different discipline. "You're talking about real culture change when you talk about how work gets done and where people are," she says. "The programmatic things don't shake up an organization in the same ways as having people work at home. Flexibility gets at the essence of what the workplace is about," she says.
Managers already have become more sophisticated, says Barney Olmsted, co-director of San Francisco-based New Ways to Work. She believes they have a greater understanding of the issues because she has seen tremendous strides in the last five years—an acceptance that employees can't just leave family issues behind when they walk into work. But, she also sees much resistance to flexible work arrangements. "These issues aren't programmatic; they're essential to the culture. Programs begin to change the culture, but they aren't a culture change by themselves. Programs reach only so deep. Flexibility is the next step."
Olmsted doesn't see this as strictly a work/family issue, but instead a labor-allocation issue. Work/family is one realm that's pushing it, but global economics is pushing it as well. Flexible work arrangements mean the ability to reallocate hours of labor without hire/fire ramifications.
Like it or not, it's probable that flexible work arrangements will be imperative in the future. "Once you celebrate individuals and empower them, rigidity doesn't fit anymore," says Susan Seitel, president of Work and Family Connections, a Minnetonka, Minnesota-based consulting firm that publishes Work and Family Newsbrief. "Employees will have to take responsibility, too. They need to be honest about their needs, to assess what home-life problems may arise. They need to stop gossiping and start approaching their supervisors with these issues as they do in other business interactions."
Everyone has a stake in creating change, says Olmsted. "It starts off with a few true believers who test it out and get data. Then a few more follow. It's an attitudinal process. It has to get into people's accepted way of doing things."
What's at stake?
The accepted way of doing things—and of thinking about things—must change if we're to forge ahead. For example, "The numbers look better if you look at the fortunate 500," says Elizabeth Hirschhorn from the Center on Work and Family at Boston University. But smaller companies are far behind. "Direct services and programs still haven't penetrated the majority of employers." Hirschhorn's words take on deep meaning when you consider that the Small Business Administration says that small businesses employ more than half of all workers in the private sector.
Every segment of society therefore must address the challenges of balancing work and family issues. We must view business's role in the community, and look at the actual jobs people do and how they spend their time at work. For instance, Galinsky hopes future visionaries will look at what happens at the workplace all day—the negative spillover to home-life. She's begun to examine the work environment and its effects on family life, child development and marriage.
Some experts say we need to evaluate not only the way people work but the amount of time people work. "The number of working hours has reached a limit that people are finding untenable," says Juliet B. Schor, Harvard University professor and author of The Overworked American. "People are moving more in the direction of preferring time over money." If they're given these options without career suicide, they'll take time.
Schor believes that family-supportive programs are helpful, but don't get at underlying core issues, such as the importance of family and non-work relationships. She echoes others when she asks if people really prefer to send their children sick to day-care programs, for example, rather than have the possibility of tending to their ill children themselves.
Although each expert has a different perspective, they agree that the work/ family field remains fragmented. Corporate America is still reacting in a piecemeal way when there's a crucial need for integration. Everything—policies, programs, benefits, communications and training—should fit together.
"In this country, we're off the charts in everything you don't want. We have the highest divorce rate, alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence," says Representative Schroeder. "A lot of it is because of the stress we put on families. It costs a lot in the workplace—in days off and health-care costs. People can't be efficient workers if all this is going on around them." Just look at these numbers. Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-based Merck & Company Inc. estimates that losing one exempt employee costs approximately 1.5 times the individual's salary; nonexempt about .75 times. The average adjustment period for a new employee is approximately 12.5 months. In addition, Corning, New York-based Corning Inc. estimates that it saves $2 million a year through increased employee retention attributable to career and family initiatives.
Clearly, corporate America is at a crossroads. We need to look at work/ family issues as reciprocal, allowing individuals to be clear about personal commitments and giving business tools to get the job done in a way that makes sense.
We need to train managers in new ways to work with employees, to train employees so they have the tools to take responsibility to get work done in new ways. We need to invest in the technology that allows people to work in different ways. And we need to provide more basic support of people throughout their life transitions, regardless of their status as white- or blue-collar workers. The public sector must get involved and help the private sector support people.
Until attitudes change and family-responsive practices are accepted as part of the way business is done, they'll continue to be treated as a marginal issue. Once they're totally accepted, many things will change. Flexibility will be mainstream, there will be more money from the private and public sectors for dependent-care resources, and people will be able to move up in the organization unencumbered by old ways of thinking. They'll be able to give their best to their employer regardless of their family status.
"There's no way to overstate how challenging it is," says Klein. "When something is as complex as how to blend and manage work-life and community-life into one workable existence, you're talking about every segment of society. We can't look back in history to see how it was done. We're still just inventing."
Personnel Journal, May 1994, Vol.73, No. 5, pp. 72-87.