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With Flexibility, Even Small Firms Can Be One Big, Happy Family

Joe Phelps looks for an unusual qualification when he is evaluating job applicants for his West Los Angeles advertising agency: Does the person live nearby?

“At our agency we rank ‘geographically desirable’ as a very important point to consider when hiring,” said Phelps, president of Phelps Group, a 50-employee company.

Phelps is not some sort of geographic elitist. He sees the informal criterion as a key part of the way he runs his agency--with an eye toward keeping the work lives and family lives of his employees in sync.

“I feel that one of the key elements in balancing family and work, especially in L.A., is the amount of drive time the parents have to get to work,” Phelps said. “Every hour on the freeway is one that can’t be spent being with the family, working or sleeping. In all cases it will come back to harm all three, if the commute is too long.”

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The proliferation in the 1990s of company policies to help workers who have families has not been solely a phenomenon of big corporations, although they are the ones that get most of the attention. Even small companies are trying to help.

Their motives are not solely warm and fuzzy. Such policies are also seen as a way to reduce costs (absenteeism, health insurance usage, turnover) and improve competitiveness (productivity, attracting good employees).

Of course, family-friendly companies are still vastly outnumbered by firms that are merely family-tolerant or worse.

But as Phelps Group illustrates, commitment from the company leadership to maintaining a culture of flexibility in the workplace is what really makes life easier for working parents.

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The office design at the advertising and public relations firm hints at the kind of working environment Joe Phelps is trying to foster.

No one, not even Phelps, has an office. Instead, workstations separated by low partitions dominate, to encourage creativity and interaction, Phelps said.

In fact, Phelps’ voicemail message warns callers that “I’m seldom at my workstation” and gives instructions on how to page him.

“I like a lot of independence, so I just assume that other people like independence and flexibility,” Phelps said. “When you start turning the screws and start tightening the policies down, people spend their time trying to get around them.

“We have a basic premise here: We hire only adults. So we don’t tell them what time to come in and what time to leave,” he said.

Employees have the flexibility to work at home when they need to. One employee, Sylvia Phelps, mother of the couple’s two children, does the bulk of her proofreading work for the company from home.

“With both sides of the marriage working, lives become pretty complicated,” Joe Phelps said. “You just have to pump more flexibility in there.”

Phelps takes a tough-love approach to vacation time: Use it or lose it. That forces employees to take a break, he believes.

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“I think vacations are very important,” Phelps said. “We’re in the business of big ideas, and people come back from a vacation refreshed and full of big ideas.”

Employees’ families are invited to all agency parties and gatherings “so they can see what we do and who we are.”

The company lives by the mission “to do great work, for deserving clients, in a healthy working environment, to realize our clients’ goals and our full potentials,” Phelps said.

Phelps calls his agency “reasonably profitable” with clients that include the Swiss and Tahiti tourism boards, Hughes Communications, Bushnell Sports Optics, the USC medical-science complex and Monrovia Nursery.

“Yet you seldom see people working in our offices on the weekend or late at night, a scene that is common to most advertising and public relations firms,” Phelps said. “That is because we stress the importance of balance.

“Because of that, our employee turnover rate is half the industry’s average. And this then translates to a client-retention rate that’s actually off the industry charts. It all works together in an upward spiral.”

At home, the Phelps family strives for harmony through “family house meetings” with a set agenda that starts with reciting the family mission and vision statements and proceeds to a review of individual commitments, allowance levels, vacation plans and problems that need attention.

“My family kind of makes fun of me,” Phelps said. “We’re probably the only family in the Palisades that has a vision and a mission.”

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Has your company developed an interesting way to help employees balance work life and family life? Write to Balancing Act, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Or e-mail nancy.rivera.brooks@latimes.com


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