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Managers Often at Odds With Family-Friendly Perks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A certain Silicon Valley computer company is lauded for the trappings of its family-friendly culture: the generous maternity leave options, the child-care assistance, the adoption aid.

And yet some women who work in some departments there say the unspoken message has been that to get ahead in the company you need to pretend that some of these policies don’t exist. They even have a nickname for one practice: “macho maternity,” wherein a woman works as close as possible to her due date and gets back to the office as soon as possible after.

It happens all the time. A company will adopt, with the best of intentions, policies that are designed to help workers with families. Companies do this for basic business reasons: to be more competitive, improve productivity and morale, reduce absenteeism, cut turnover.

But often these intentions collide with a supervisor who can’t or won’t implement them effectively.

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“This is a major problem, big time,” said Barney Olmstead, co-director of San Francisco-based New Ways to Work, a nonprofit organization that researches flexible work options and helps corporations put them into practice. “You get conflicting messages in the workplace.”

“Unless somebody in the company says that managers should offer more flexibility in the workplace, it’s not going to happen,” Olmstead said. “The way things are going in a lot of companies, it’s just a source of major frustration.”

Frequently, companies think they want to be family-friendly, but then something happens, like a major downsizing or restructuring, and the employees that remain find that not only are the hours longer, but the flexibility is gone, she said.

This doesn’t have to happen, consultants say, if managers are given the resources and training to deliver what top executives say they want.

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“More and more companies have put out these resources and they’re doing training,” Olmstead said. “This goes hand in hand with trying to squeeze as much blood from the turnips that are left.”

The secret of successful family-friendly companies is to approach these policies as a strategic business tool rather than some sort of favor for employees and to train managers accordingly, said Karen Noble, a senior consultant for Boston-based WFD, formerly known as Work-Family Directions.

“That’s a huge change, a paradigm shift that our clients are struggling with,” Noble said. “It’s required, for most companies, a pretty major culture change.”

Several studies have demonstrated that companies that employ policies commonly known as family-friendly and adopted a flexible attitude toward work and family issues save money in a variety of ways, Noble said.

But a commitment from upper management is not enough, she said. Supervisors must be trained in how these policies directly benefit their departments. They must be taught to implement these policies consistently and uniformly.

Companies also need to track the use of such policies and to reward managers who administer them well, Noble said.

“Managers are going to manage for what they’re rewarded for,” Noble said. “I think managers often feel that they’re in a double bind. They feel that they’re caught in a position of having to be supportive of employees’ work-life issues, and yet they’re held accountable for bottom-line results in an environment in which we’re forced to get results.”

One of the key areas of training, Noble said, is in getting supervisors to value real results rather than employee visibility or “face time"--time actually spent in the office.

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In setting up telecommuting, for example, “I’ve had supervisors complain, ‘But how will I know if they’re working?’ and I say, ‘How do you know now?’ I usually get a blank look,” Noble said.

“A results-measurement-driven workplace, an efficient work environment, is the most supportive work-life environment there is,” Noble said.

BankAmerica is one company that has been through tremendous upheavals in recent years, but at the computer loan service center in downtown Los Angeles, flexibility is the norm.

An estimated 75% of the 80 employees at the service center have opted for a schedule in which they work nine-hour days but get an extra day off every two weeks, said vice president David Hilleary. The day off rotates so that there are always enough people in the office to do the work.

And employees are allowed to choose their own working hours, with some starting as early as 5 a.m., Hilleary said.

The system was a challenge initially because it required a lot of bookkeeping, he said. But once the system was established, it ran smoothly.

“This certainly is something the bank is encouraging quite a bit, educating us as managers in different ways to offer flexibility,” Hilleary said. “The principal concern is getting the job done at the right price for our customers.

“The staff loves it,” he said. “The advantage of having that extra day off, we find, makes the employees work very hard to cover for each other because they know at the end of the day that if it isn’t working, the bank won’t offer it anymore.”

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