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Taking Your Work-Life Policy Abroad

Craft a work/life policy with a global perspective.

July 1, 1998
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Related Topics: Managing International Operations
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As corporate boundaries extend worldwide, an organization’s scope of work/life programs must expand as well. No longer able to view work/life issues solely through American glasses, companies must look at work/life issues from a global perspective. Motivating and supporting today’s global workforce means addressing the diverse needs and desires of all employees. Companies, therefore, must be cautious to offer benefits that are meaningful and are valued across cultures.

Work/life programs are on the rise.
U.S. businesses are getting serious about helping their employees balance work and family commitments. A 1998 survey by Bethesda, Maryland-based Watson Wyatt Worldwide reports that flex options, job sharing and other scheduling alternatives are moving into the corporate mainstream. Half of all large U.S. companies surveyed, and nearly a third of mid-sized companies, are making nontraditional arrangements commonplace.

Work/life benefits are gaining acceptance largely because companies see the link between high morale and outstanding performance. According to this year’s "Best Companies" study by Fortune magazine, 73 percent of those that made the inaugural list of "100 Best Places to Work in America" reported much higher than average annual returns on investment.

It’s also encouraging that work/life issues are receiving high-level attention from some of the country’s largest corporations. Last year more than 70 CEOs gathered in New York City for the first CEO summit on work/family issues. "Our very presence today says something about the new realities of leading a company in the global marketplace," said Paul Allaire, CEO of Xerox based in Stamford, Connecticut.

A global work/life strategy is essential for worldwide success.
As companies continue to embrace work/life strategies, they must be sure to approach the strategies from a global perspective. Today, more than 100,000 U.S. firms are engaged in some type of global venture with a combined value of more than $1 trillion. One of every five American workers is employed at a company with a global presence, and the number is increasing daily. In fact, U.S. multinational companies employ almost seven million people outside the United States.

To offer benefits and policies that are meaningful to a global workforce, companies must assess work/life issues within the context of their employees’ social, cultural and country backgrounds. Understanding the distinction between U.S. and European views of work/family issues, for example, will help American companies to create valuable work/life strategies for their European employees.

As stated in a recent report by The Center for Work & Family at Boston College, in European countries "work and family issues tend to be regarded as socio-political as well as economic concerns... It’s widely expected that all social partners—including workplaces, governments and trade unions—should be involved in addressing work and family issues. Work and family priorities are not regarded as being primarily a corporate concern."

In the United States, these issues generally are seen as a combination of professional matters and family concerns. Economic and social concerns typically are considered separately. In Europe, however, work and family issues are closely connected, and economic and social progress is seen as inextricably linked. As a result, European social legislation provides for such basic, family-friendly benefits as national health care, although employers are increasingly looked to for additional family-friendly policies and practices.

European countries provide basic work/family benefits.
Many European countries provide significant baseline support for employees. Corporations doing business in Europe should look at the benefits already provided by individual countries when developing work and family programs there. The following is a look at some work/life issues and how they’re handled in

different European countries:

  1. Childcare:
    Benefits often are addressed at the workplace. In countries such as the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Portugal, employer-based childcare and childcare allowances are becoming common. In other countries, such as Sweden, universal childcare is publicly provided.
  2. Maternity/parental leave rights:
    Under national health services, basic benefits are provided by all European governments. Very generous attitudes exist toward maternity leaves and, in some countries, paternity leaves, parental leaves and leaves to care for sick family members. For instance, employees in Sweden enjoy 38 weeks of paid parental leave at 90 percent of their pay.
  3. Health care:
    Europe has a national health service program that provides health insurance and dependent health care, significantly reducing the need for employers to provide this benefit.
  4. Telecommuting:
    Because of advances in telecommunications and computer technology, there has been an increase in telecommuting in Europe, most notably in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
  5. Career breaks:
    Structured like a sabbatical, career breaks are offered by companies in France, Germany and Belgium and usually are used for childcare or schooling.
  6. Alternative work options:
    European companies have offered flextime for many years. Use of part-time and job-sharing options has increased in recent years, particularly in the United Kingdom, Germany and France.

While many European countries provide employees with basic benefits, there is recognition that more assistance from employers is needed to help families meet their professional and personal responsibilities. The expectation is growing that companies will assume a greater role in helping employees to balance their work and family lives through employer-sponsored benefits and programs.

As in numerous European countries, many Asian governments and social institutions value the family as an essential institution and are committed to its well being. For example, in Singapore sustaining traditional values and preserving family strength are considered intangible factors in the success of East Asian economies. In support of a family-friendly workplace, government-sponsored benefits offered to employees include:

  • Eight weeks paid maternity leave
  • Four years unpaid maternity leave
  • Four years unpaid childcare leave for parents with sick children
  • Eldercare
  • Childcare subsidies
  • Family resource centers

"Our institutions and basic policies are in place to sustain high economic growth. But if we lose our traditional values, our family strength and cohesion, we will lose our vibrancy—and decline," states Goh Chok Tong, Singapore’s prime minister.

Connect your policy to company objectives.

Global competition requires that American corporations develop a work/life strategy that supports their overall business objectives. This approach becomes even more critical when considering the influx of workforce issues that have emerged in recent years, such as gender equity, diversity, wellness, health and stress management. Add to this mix the issues concerning expatriates, and it becomes obvious that a strategic approach to work/life issues is essential.

One company that has been successful in addressing the variety of work/life issues of its global workforce is SC Johnson Wax, located in Racine, Wisconsin. A manufacturer of household cleaning, personal care and insect control products with more than 12,000 employees and 100 expatriates, the company has developed a program that provides compensation and benefits to globally transferred employees. Covered under a uniform transfer policy, the program links compensation and benefits to an employee’s home country.

In addition to making it relatively easy to transfer employees around the world, the program recognizes the complexity of the social and national health and benefit programs provided by many countries. Under a uniform policy, work/life issues can be easily addressed assuring that the employee’s work/life needs are met.

Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly also recognizes that there are many unique work/life issues involved when transferring families in and out of the United States. "We learned a few years ago how important it is to place a lot of focus on the family’s needs. It’s kind of like a domino effect. If the children aren’t happy, the spouse isn’t going to be happy, the employee isn’t going to be happy, and the company isn’t going to be happy. It can all tumble down on you," says Samuel L. Pearson, Eli Lilly’s international relocation coordinator.

 

Realizing that schooling is a critical issue and seeking to make the transition easier for inpatriates, the Indiana-based producer of human health and agricultural products helped found the International School of Indiana. Serving children in pre-K through grade three, the school grew from 38 students to 81 in its first two years. "With the help of other multinational companies, we expect to expand the school to a complete elementary school," says Pearson.

Companies with meaningful programs are rewarded by greater employee commitment.
Studies confirm that people today want more balance between their work and family lives and companies would be wise to adapt. Additional reports show that employees who use work/family programs receive the highest job performance ratings and have the highest commitment to the company. In a business world where corporations are downsizing, merging and restructuring, a motivated and loyal workforce will be a company’s greatest asset.

"Individual energy and creativity are unleashed when changes in work practices benefit employees’ personal lives," said Xerox’s Allaire. "The best business strategy recognizes that greater employee satisfaction means greater productivity and, in turn, better business results."

The changing needs of today’s workforce have created unprecedented demands for flexible and diverse programs and policies. While companies are realizing the benefits of implementing a work/life strategy, it is essential that they do so from a global perspective. As U.S. companies continue to expand operations across borders, the ability to maintain a productive and motivated workforce is critical to success.

Companies that incorporate the global perspective into their work/life strategy will have a competitive advantage in today’s global market. For American corporations, the difference between success and failure may be how well they learn to manage their global workforce.

Global Workforce, July 1998, Vol. 3, No. 4, pp. 24-27.

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