Small Business

Thinking Outside the Cubicle


By Pamela Mendels Baxter Intl. Inc. (annual revenue in the $7 billion range) is one of those huge companies that can afford to offer employees an enviable array of work/life programs -- resource and referral services, adoption assistance, back-up child- and elder-care for many employees, to name a few.

You may ask yourself, "So why should I, a small-business executive who keeps fingers crossed that payroll can be met every week, bother to continue reading this column?"

The simple answer is because Baxter's chief executive, Harry M. Jansen Kraemer Jr., has introduced one invaluable work/life practice that doesn't cost the company a nickel: He writes a bimonthly column, "CEO Update," that is posted prominently on the Baxter intranet. After an introduction, the column invariably begins not with the latest news about product development or corporate earnings, but with an item called "On the Homefront" in which he passes along news from the Kraemer household. A typical column may relate his involvement with his daughter's baseball team or how he walks his kids to school.

Nothing earth-shattering -- except the implicit message behind the column: This is one CEO who recognizes and respects life beyond the office.

CONSIDERATION PAYS. I found out about Kraemer's column when I was reading a report by Jill Casner-Lotto, the vice-president for policy at the Work in America Institute, a nonprofit research group based in Scarsdale, N.Y. The study, Holding a Job, Having a Life: Strategies for Change looks at 10 companies and their efforts to promote employee work/life balance. (It costs $40 and you can get it by sending an e-mail to: info@workinamerica.org.)

Each of these employers is Baxter-size, and many have expensive, Baxter-type work/family benefits. But if you read the case studies closely, you'll also find a number of low- or no-cost measures that could work for small businesses.

Here are two examples.

-- At Ernst & Young, the professional-services company, employees are told not to check their business voice- or e-mail over the weekend. If it's critical for clients to reach them outside office hours, E&Y employees are urged to give them a method that means less tethering to the office, such as a home phone number.

-- At the calling centers of two large banks with round-the-clock shifts, managers are allowing employees to swap days off. That way, an employee scheduled to work over weekend can switch to make a family wedding on Saturday, or a weekday worker can be off on a Wednesday if a parent needs help to make a doctor's appointment.

SMALL AND FLEXIBLE It's important to note that none of these practices was introduced in isolation. In fact, they generally were launched only after a serious examination of employee needs, work processes, and how company practice could change to help the bottom line while accommodating employees. At the calling centers, for example, the shift swap was one of many measures introduced to lessen turnover.

Those serious examinations of the workforce often entailed large-scale employee surveys and focus groups -- even hotlines that allowed employees to speak anonymously.

As a small-business owner, you probably can't afford those sort of measures. What you can do is take advantage of an edge you have over the big guys, Casner-Lotto says. When I asked her about the report, she pointed out that entrepreneurs don't need focus groups because they can sit down with all their employees for an honest discussion about ways in which work may be infringing -- unnecessarily -- on their lives at home.

If you think employees might be reluctant to speak candidly, Casner-Lotto suggests inviting them to express their thoughts in unsigned notes. Read them and you might discover a pattern: Perhaps those 5:30 p.m. meetings are keeping people from eating dinner with their families, for example. No-brainer solution: Hold the meetings at another time.

MILK OF HUMAN KINDNESS. In looking at Baxter's array of benefits I noticed one that could be introduced with a small investment if you happen to have an underused room. Don't laugh: It's a lactation room. With more mothers breast-feeding, a lactation room allows them to continue doing so even after they return to work by providing a quiet place to pump milk and store it. At the moment, too many new mothers who have just returned to work must slink into unpleasant and uncomfortable bathroom stalls to do this.

I saw a lactation room once at a large insurance company. It was small and private. I believe there was a radio playing soft classical music, a rocking chair with some comfortable cushions, a lamp, and a small table. Maybe some curtains to give the room a homey air.

How much could that cost? Far less than how much it would be appreciated. Pamela Mendels is based in New York City. She wrote about small business and had a workplace advice column at Newsday, and has written about workplace matters for Business Week, WorkingWoman, and the Web site iGuide.


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