Return to main story


At Baxter Export, employees and managers confront work-family chaos

As the afternoon crashes in around her office, as voice mail and E-mail stream in from Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Panama, as conference calls drone on, one inevitability stares Debbie DeBree square in the face: At 5:30 p.m., she has to have dinner on the table.

By then, her husband, Mark, will have picked up 3-year-old Ashley from day care and Adam, 7, from grade school before heading to the first of his two night jobs. Zachary, 15, gets home on his own now. After dinner comes Adam's weekly Cub Scout meeting, where Debbie presides as den mother. The kids are in bed by 9, and Debbie soon after. She'll rise at 4:30 to start breakfast and get the kids going.

And that's just Monday. The rest of the week, a cacophonous maze of alternating work schedules, schools, errands, and kids' activities, simply defies summary. Chaotic? Exhausting? Truly. But ''we're kind of used to it,'' DeBree says. ''This is our life.''

There are 85 lives at Baxter Export Corp., the international logistics unit at Baxter International Inc.'s Deerfield (Ill.) headquarters where DeBree is based. Few are extraordinary, but none is ''normal.'' Brian Kaspari, for one, juggles family responsibilities with his wife, Pamela, whose job as a police dispatcher requires her to rotate shifts every two weeks. Elizabeth Bergman and her flight attendant husband, Eric, work complementary schedules--and rarely see each other--to avoid putting 2-year-old Emily in day care.

Like any workplace, Baxter Export is the sum of its employees: Bergman's, Kaspari's, and DeBree's personal lives are enmeshed inextricably with their jobs, the jobs of co-workers, and the unit's business. Last-minute customer orders, superfluous memoranda, or a colleague's sick day all take their toll on the delicate balance. Likewise, the ups and downs of families affect productivity, quality, and corporate profits.

NO EASY FIX. An 18-month study by Baxter International of 1,000 employees, published this year, revealed that among salaried employees, most work-life tensions were driven by the need for greater balance and the desire for flexibility. At Baxter Export, with 30% of its employees telecommuting, job-sharing or working part-time, flexibility has become the norm. But many employees still have trouble striking a satisfactory balance between job and home. There's a solution, but it is no easy fix: The division is entering a thorough restructuring that is altering not just its own jobs and processes but also those throughout the corporation.

Baxter Export's willingness to grapple openly with such issues makes it a revealing laboratory of social change. Its parent, a $5.4 billion maker of health-care products, ranks 19th on Business Week's survey, winning employees' plaudits for its supportive culture and alternative work arrangements. ''Shared values,'' rooted in the notion of mutual respect, are reprised relentlessly in internal communications. The company's 42-year-old president, Harry M. Kraemer Jr., begins his widely read monthly financial reports with tales from his own dual-career, three-child family. Workers, he says, ''need to know we're all in the same boat.''

Even so, the competing pressures of a globally competitive business on the one hand and the two-income family on the other have converged here, forcing many people into inventive, intense arrangements. For Jackie Demo, the workday begins at 6:30 a.m. Like other operations analysts, who typically make between $30,000 and $40,000 a year, she helps support Baxter's briskly growing international business, managing the flow of catheters, dialysis solutions, and intravenous tubes to subsidiaries and customers around the world. She chose to start at daybreak because she can both better communicate with customers in South Africa and New Zealand and pick up her daughter Kaleen, 5, from day care by 4 p.m. Demo, 37, who started at Baxter in 1981, initiated the arrangement four years ago. ''I was working overtime, often until 7 p.m. I'd get home in time to give Kaleen her bottle, then put her to sleep. I said: 'This is ridiculous.'''

At home, while microwaving dinner, Demo looks in on her mother-in-law, Elaine, in a basement apartment, then fields a call from the hospice agency that coordinates her care. Diagnosed with terminal cancer last spring, Elaine needs round-the-clock attention. After trying to provide it themselves, with help from family members, Demo and her husband, Joe, hired a live-in health aide several months ago.

Demo's flexible hours and at least one day a week telecommuting ease the burden. Still, the demands of looking after a child and an ill parent--not to mention Joe's small graphics business--prove draining. When heavy rains flooded Joe's office recently, Jackie stayed up until midnight cleaning 75 T-shirts scheduled to go to a customer that week. Joe often doesn't eat until 9 p.m., then stays up late paying bills. ''Some nights we cry, and sometimes we snipe at each other,'' Jackie admits.

GROUP ETHIC. John Lindner, the front-line manager who oversees Demo, Kaspari, DeBree, and 11 others, is convinced that acknowledging and easing such tensions is good business. Although he doesn't work at home himself, he believes that his people are 10% more productive on the days they telecommute. Baxter's willingness to accommodate problems, he adds, also pays off in higher commitment. Still, telecommuters are held to rules that limit disruption. They can't work more than two days a week out of the office; more than that reduces contact with co-workers and erodes the group ethic. Everyone has to be in the office on Wednesdays for meetings. They must pay for call-waiting for their home phones--Latin American customers, especially, don't like voice mail. And they have to share their company-provided laptop PCs: DeBree and co-worker Linda Barry swap theirs at church every Sunday.

With all their flexibility, though, Baxter Export's employees still struggle to find balance. Most spend 45 to 50 hours a week on the job--longer, some say, than they would like. Kaspari checks his office voice mail twice after he gets home and often spends an hour or more dealing with urgent customer issues. As for Demo, the onset of her mother-in-law's cancer and subsequent chemotherapy coincided with a six-week stretch of 14-hour days for a special project, though she says the office actually provided emotional respite through the ordeal.

In the scheme of things, of course, a 50-hour week for white-collar workers hardly is unusual. But the question of balance isn't lost on Griff Lewis, the executive who presides over Baxter Export. ''We think they work too much,'' he says of his employees. More than that, he recognizes that his unit's volume is growing at 12% to 15% a year, and he does not have the budget to add corresponding staff. Just to keep people's hours reasonable, much less reduce them, he has to find ways to lift productivity--rethinking processes, redesigning jobs, eliminating unnecessary tasks.

That means moving, over the next five years, to an automated allocation system that requires overseas customers, rather than Baxter Export analysts, to prepare demand forecasts and enter orders. That would route orders directly to U.S. warehouses and, as a result, lop three days' work off each analyst's monthly load. Within two years, Lewis expects to standardize procedures across the 120 countries his department serves, eliminating extraneous tasks and allowing employees to address mostly exceptional orders and higher-level issues.

Already, such schemes have relieved the 60-hour weeks that were commonplace a few years back, employees say. Yet Lewis' putative makeover is complicated by his division's web of relationships with the many units of its global parent. Baxter's U.S. manufacturing, for instance, maintains as little inventory as possible--so when demand overseas spikes above expectations, Lewis' analysts can't always find product easily. If managers in Brazil cram in last-minute orders to meet quarterly quotas, someone in Deerfield has to work late to meet requirements on time.

Can Brazil change? Can everyone? That's what it will take, ultimately, for DeBree, Kaspari, and Demo to have easier lives. They have support, in name and in practice, from manager Lindner up to President Kraemer. Now the rest of Baxter will try to adjust to new schedules, changed systems, and altered strategies. If everyone pulls together, Debbie DeBree's kids can eat on time.

By Keith H. Hammonds in Deerfield, Ill.

Return to main story


Updated Sept. 4, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
Terms of Use