Family-Friendly Benefits at Work Help Budgets

Businesses large and small are realizing that helping employees maintain a healthy work/life balance is good for the bottom line as well as workers’ wallets.

Employers know an engaged, productive employee is a smart investment. Staying the course with family-friendly benefits during an economic downturn, instead of cutting back, earns companies even more employee loyalty, and it keeps them in the forefront as an employer of choice. And some benefits ultimately reduce costs for employers.

Here’s a look at how family-friendly policies are economically effective – for both employers and employees – at some of the 50 companies recognized by Carolina Parenting Inc. in 2009. 

Flexibility fits the bill

The laptop and PDA, or personal digital assistant, have empowered millions of Americans who are working out of cars, coffee shops, airports and hotels, not to mention their homes. While this lowers commuting costs and benefits the environment, it also pays off for employers.

More and more businesses are putting policies in place that free employees from company desks, and companies are rethinking how, when and where work gets done. It’s thinking outside the box – or outside the office – to cut costs. More than 34 million adults in the U.S. telecommute, according to Forrester Research.

Maryanne Perrin, of Balancing Professionals in Cary, says a flexible workplace focuses on talent and results over schedule and location.

“Flexible organizations often experience higher productivity and loyalty among their workers, lower costs associated with turnover, substantial real estate or rent savings from effective telecommute programs, and improved recruitment and diversity,” Perrin says.

She adds that with turnover costs ranging 100 to 200 percent of annual salaries, savings from retaining employees flows straight to the bottom line.

Perrin cites a May report by Corporate Voices for Working Families that proved flexibility can be effective with hourly workers, too. By giving people more choices in scheduling and sick/vacation day use, employees reported a 55 percent higher engagement in their work and a 45 percent lower turnover intention.

And for most companies, recouping the cost of replacing unsatisfied employees – the time and money spent for interviewing, hiring and training – is painful in an already sluggish marketplace.

At Bank of America, the My Work program increases the bank’s “work force agility and productivity, as well as the ability to attract and retain the best talent,” says Kelly Sapp, a Bank of America spokesperson. “This is about work style, not work space.”

One of the options is working closer to home. The bank has satellite locations north and south of uptown Charlotte, in Huntersville and Ballantyne. And for those working out of home offices, these locations offer communications connectivity, office equipment and conference rooms. The payoffs for the bank are reduced employee stress and higher levels of satisfaction, resulting in enhanced employee productivity.

Cali Williams Yost, a work/life consultant and the author of Work+Life: Finding the Fit That’s Right for You, says, “In a recession, more needs to be done with fewer resources. It’s even more critical that employees are at their most productive, and workflow and communication are most efficient.”

BDO Seidman in Charlotte adheres to the work+life “fit” model, understanding that technology and globalization have transformed “working” into a 24/7 reality. At BDO, a focus on flexibility and valuing employee talent to service customers worldwide enables the firm to remain successful in a competitive global marketplace. The professional services company that originally prioritized face time, now has nearly 2,700 employees, and more than 90 percent use some kind of flextime.

In 2008, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina in Chapel Hill established a Flexible Work Options Committee and hired a full-time Workforce Change Champion. About 60 percent of the work force works from home on a part-time or occasional basis, but BCBSNC has a goal of increasing the full-time work-from-home program from 250 employees to 1,200 by 2014.

A recent survey by Citrix Online’s Worldwide Workplace Council revealed more than 20 percent of U.S. workers would be willing to forego 5 percent of their salary in exchange for the freedom to telecommute several days a week. As employers and employees dialog about flexibility and remote work options, Citrix’s new site,, helps them figure out the logistics.

One hurdle many employees cite is the trust factor: Bosses naturally think productivity only comes with presence. “Equating face time with results no longer makes sense in 2009,” Perrin says. “Managing by making sure your people are in the office every day . . . is not an effective way to move your business along. Managing for results takes ongoing communication and is a smarter way to ensure people are adding value to the organization.”

Valuing valuable workers

Some companies are even stepping up their commitment to employee satisfaction and well-being. At Cisco in Research Triangle Park, work/life programs and resources have increased during the past year, with additional flexible work options launched in April.

Up to 22 percent of employees work remotely full time, and employee satisfaction surveys report “improved productivity due to reduced commuting time.” Cisco cites flexibility, trust and empowerment as key factors in attracting, engaging and retaining a top-notch work force.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina added two weeks of maternity leave in 2008, giving employees eight weeks with full pay. And, affordable backup child care was increased from 15 days to 20.

“This increase really helps during spring break and Christmas break when my son is out of school,” says Marian Spencer, an operations specialist, adding the company also began matching employees’ dependent care flexible spending accounts up to $500. “My son normally attends summer camp. … I (used to) pay out at least $1,000. This year, with help from BCBSNC, that leaves me $500 I can put toward another expense, such as back-to-school shopping.”

Bank of America also improved benefits for its employees. By consolidating administration of its health and life management benefits, the company was able to reinvest the cost savings into a new bank-funded Health Care Account program. Other additions included enhanced child care reimbursements; increased maternity, paternity and adoption paid time off; and increased tuition reimbursement.

Offering work/life benefits is good business for small companies, too.

Ann Gerhardt, executive director of The Women’s Center, a nonprofit organization in Chapel Hill, makes it work with just eight employees. “When people know how much they are valued, they are willing to go the extra mile for The Women’s Center,” she says, adding that with a mission to help improve the self-sufficiency of women and girls, the organization must “walk the talk.”

Direct financial assistance

At American Express in Greensboro, some 1,900 employees have access to free on-site flu shots and health care (nurse practitioner and registered nurse), which reduces dollars spent filling up at the gas pump, medical costs and time away from the office for minor health issues.

An onsite market also enables them to pick up staples, like bread and milk or fresh fruits and vegetables, or grab greeting cards, instead of having to stop on the way home from the office.

Other direct benefits to the wallet are free on-site child care when schools are closed for inclement weather, an on-site monthly coupon swap, as well as discounts at local stores.

Employees at Duke University and Health System in Durham also enjoy local discounts, with nearly 200 local merchants signed on. The more than 18,000 employees who have signed up receive weekly postings with ways to cash in on savings while they shop.

At Cisco in Raleigh, employees who take an online Personal Health Assessment to identify potential health risks and increase healthy behaviors receive a $100 incentive. More than 70 percent of U.S. workers have completed the assessment. Following the suggestions for improved healthy living – such as diet, exercise and smoking cessation – earns employees an additional $200.

Many companies are offering seminars and workshops on financial planning and reducing household expenses. BCBSNC offers classes such as “Taking Care of Your Financial Fitness” and “Finding the Right Investment Strategy.”

At American Express, Debt Boot Camps teach employees how to better manage their money.

Shamala Matthews-Grice, an interactive account servicing analyst, says the Debt Boot Camp taught her and her husband simple money-management principles and enabled them to maintain their lifestyle while saving a portion of their income, even though they were in the midst of paying for their wedding.

“All of this was done stress-free, because we had a plan and had already committed to only living on a portion of our income,” she says.

Inviting employee input

Finally, open-door communication between management and employees remains crucial to keeping the balance sheet in the black and employees who are motivated to work hard during tough times.

Top executives at Cisco are honest with employees about the economic downturn, and last November workers were engaged in helping the company manage its expenses. Company-wide meetings were held and viewed live on CiscoTV. Workers could offer suggestions through surveys, and Cisco’s chief financial officer posted a blog and challenged people to submit cost-saving ideas.

Chairman and chief executive officer John Chambers refers to his employees as the “Cisco Family,” and he receives weekly reports of employees and families who may be going through difficult times. Often, he makes a personal phone call to offer assistance and reassurance.

It’s this kind of management-initiated communication and focus on employee well-being that enables some companies to not only survive in a recession, but thrive.

Compared to Cisco, Raleigh-based L&E Research is a very small company, with only 33 employees. But founder Lynne Eggers believes, “If we take care of the employees, the employees will take care of the clients.” And in this economy, every client – every dollar – counts.

Lee McCracken is an associate editor at Charlotte Parent, a sister publication of Carolina Parent.

Categories: Finance, Money, Work-Life, Work-Life Balance