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WORK CULTURE AT HEART OF WORK/FAMILY PROGRAMS

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CHICAGO -- Changes in the culture, and not just additional programs, are needed to make workplaces more family-friendly.

Despite the workplace revolution that put more women in the work force, many companies still base their employment policies on the old model of men who go to work and women who stay at home.

"And this causes a lot of problems," said Kathryn Tama, manager-workplace initiatives for the World Bank in Washington.

In response, to make workers happy, many companies have instituted work/life policies such as part-time work, job sharing and flex time. "But people don't use (them) because it's seen as something not good for their career," Ms. Tama said while addressing a session at the Second Annual Corporate Benefits Conference held this month in Chicago. The conference is jointly sponsored by the Assn. of Private Pension & Welfare Plans, the Council on Employee Benefits, and the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans.

Many companies have initiated work/life initiatives to make it easier for employees to simultaneously work and raise families. These programs have the added goal of attracting more women workers with families and of eliminating child care issues that interfere with some employees' focus on work. The result is happier and better workers.

Other employers have gone a step further by introducing programs aimed at both men and women with families to eliminate conflicts between work and family.

Ms. Tama said that these programs are not enough; corporations need to change their culture. The next step "is to try to look at the work culture that causes people not to take the benefits," she said.

Changing the culture requires training managers to accept the loss of control that goes along with telecommuting and other part-time work arrangements. Another method she advocated is to add to managers' performance evaluations questions about how well they deal with work/life issues.

"It's a hard, hard battle," she said, one that requires effort and time.

Another cultural change involves examining the work process. By looking at what gets in the way of workers' productivity and eliminating those barriers, companies can increase productivity. For example, she said, one company examined the work of a particular unit and instituted quiet hours. During quiet hours, group members could not speak with one another, resulting in increased productivity.

Re-examining work also involves switching from evaluating the worker based on time spent on the job to the amount and quality of work produced.

To create a different culture at a workplace, Ms. Tama recommended that benefits professionals start small and make incremental changes. These changes should be discussed with upper management, both to educate them on the need for the changes and to review later the successes and failures of any programs. Also, she said that changes should involve multiple departments and units within companies. Problems cross many departments, and potential solutions must also involve those departments, she said.

Ms. Tama emphasized that work/family benefits don't just make employees happier; they make employees better workers by allowing them to focus on their jobs. "The hope is that, in the future, it will be common knowledge that having employees who have rich and fulfilling lives makes good business sense," she said.

One corporate change involves the increased use of flexible work arrangements, such as telecommuting, job sharing, compressed work weeks or other ways of shifting around employees' work schedules to better fit their lives. Because of today's tight labor market, flexible work is a good way of keeping key people on the job, said Rochelle Moulton, chief executive officer of Qwest Consultants in Chicago, at a different conference session.

To implement flexible work arrangements, Ms. Moulton recommended looking not simply at the job but at the nature of the work. For example, one question to ask is whether it's important for a worker to be at the job site all day. "Not all jobs, not all work, require your physical presence at all times," she said.

Flexible work also needs to be tied to worker performance. Only high-achieving employees should be considered for any programs. And once in a program, employees must continue to meet performance goals.

Providing the necessary technology to those who work at home is another important challenge. Sometimes it's less expensive for the company to set up a home office for a worker and to save the space in the office, Ms. Moulton said.

And, finally, the company needs to be ready for flexible work arrangements. If the company is not ready, the arrangements will be difficult to implement. For example, those not working flexible schedules should not feel they are shouldering extra burdens because some peers work out of the office. Also, employees might be reluctant to change schedules for fear that such arrangements may hurt their careers. "Out of sight, out of mind is a big problem" because many employees are concerned they'll be forgotten after going into flexible schedules, Ms. Moulton said.

To make flexible arrangements work, she emphasized making the programs fit the employees' needs. This means researching what the employees need and coming up with plans that address those needs, rather than assuming what the needs are.

Also, the expectations of both employees and supervisors should be spelled out at the outset. And the workers at home need to be monitored, just like workers in the office. "There is no substitute for managing," she said. "Because they're not in front of you every day doesn't mean they don't need management," she added.