Must work get in the way of life?

A company that is willing to go the extra mile for its employees - even if that means providing childcare in snowy weather - is likely to get, and keep, the best staff. Roger Trapp reports on a US consultancy that is helping to changing the culture of multinationals world-wide
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When the North American winter brings so much snow that children cannot get to school, employees of BankBoston, a leading regional bank, are a lot better off than most. Rather than worrying about what they will do with their offspring while they are out of the house for the day, they are able to take them to work to be looked after.

Thanks to the efforts of the consultancy Work/Family Directions (WFD), the bank has what it calls a "snowy day" programme that organises the supervision of school-age children when such difficult-to-predict problems arise. The service is just one of many that the consultancy, which is this week formally launched in the UK, has been offering to a vast range of companies over the past decade. Acting as both a consultancy and a counselling service, it helps individuals and their managers to handle the changing world of work - and, it argues, to become more productive while doing so.

When Fran Sussner Rodgers founded the company in 1983, the idea was to help companies to respond to the needs of the growing number of women in the workforce by providing extra services and flexible working methods that would aid the all-too-common juggling of job and home life that dogs many female workers. (Heavy snowfalls may look like straightforward occurrences to most people, but to families in which both parents work they, like children's sickness, spell potential disaster.)

Ms Rodgers' belief was that companies should do this sort of thing not out of charity, but because it made solid business sense for employees to be able to concentrate on their work without having to worry about what was going on at home.

Originally confined to issues connected to childcare - at least in part because these were the ones Ms Rodgers herself, as a wife and mother, was grappling with - it soon grew to encompass many others, particularly the care of elderly parents. For example, Irene Shadowan, a public affairs manager with DuPont, the chemical and energy group that is one of a host of Fortune 500 companies to have employed WFD, was recently faced with having to look after her elderly father while her mother went into hospital for cancer treatment. Living 400 miles away from her parents, she would have found it extremely difficult to find appropriate care while she worked - had it not been for WFD. "I made one call and was given the names of 15 facilities in my country. As a result, I was able to call my mother within 48 hours and say that I had found a place. I never would have had the resources to do that," she says.

WFD has also found that its work - which has seen the organisation grow to one that achieves revenues of $65m and employs 400 people in several offices in the United States, Canada and now the UK - has started to appeal to men as well as women. Both men and women want to "act responsibly toward their families and still satisfy their professional ambitions", Ms Rodgers pointed out in a 1989 Harvard Business Review article, written with her husband, Charles, a labour economist. That desire has strengthened in recent years as waves of downsizing and re-engineering have put under increasing pressure the people who are still working in the world's largest multinationals.

Given such an environment, many of the most desirable employees have opted to leave their high-powered jobs for positions where they feel they can achieve a better balance between work and play. A mid-Nineties survey of working Americans found that three-quarters of those faced with a conflict between work and family would favour the latter, while a recent global survey of college business students by the accountancy and management consultancy firm Coopers & Lybrand found that the chief goal was to "achieve a balanced lifestyle and to have a rewarding life outside work".

The problem is that such goals are increasingly difficult to meet. Research published this week by WFD shows that, although 90 per cent of workers claim that being able to balance work and personal life is the key factor in determining their commitment to their employer, the reality is that half of all full-time workers are concerned about having too little time with their families, a quarter do not believe it is possible to combine a good family life and career success, and a fifth are so worried about the lack of balance that they would be willing to take a pay cut in exchange for more free time.

WFD's response to all this is to say that companies that offer to help resolve these issues will have a competitive advantage: not only will they attract the best people, but once in the company, such people are likely to become more committed and loyal.

"Over the past three or four years, we have found that in companies that pay attention to people's personal needs, the people who take advantage of what is offered are most committed to the company. They are the people who are willing to go the extra mile," says Ms Rodgers.

As part of this effort to stress the business case for adopting such policies, Ms Rodgers and the high-profile people running the British arm - Liz Bargh, former director of Opportunity 2000, Lucy Daniels, founder member of Parents at Work, and Joanna Foster, former head of the Equal Opportunities Commission - prefer not to talk in terms of family-friendly policies. After all, in many organisations that supposedly espouse such approaches, people are "blamed" for taking up the opportunities, they claim.

The aim of Ms Bargh and her colleagues is to continue the work that has been done in the United States, where about 2 million employees working for such companies as Digital, Citibank, General Motors and Johnson & Johnson can dial a free phone number as often as they want, to obtain help with any kind of personal issue.

Ms Bargh suffered from frustrations at Opportunity 200, the campaign to encourage the promotion of women in the workplace, as a result of companies reining in their policies during the recession. But she is optimistic that now that there is intellectual acceptance of the ideas, giving organisations the "practical tools" to put in place, appropriate policies will make the difference.

At BankBoston, they certainly think that the counselling service provided by WFD made a difference when the bank merged with a rival last autumn. According to the senior human resources consultant, Jack Curley, it was one of the first things offered to the new employees and "dealt with some of their stresses and anxieties", smoothing what is normally a difficult processn