"At the time," Maxwell frequently explains when addressing business gatherings and other groups, "I believed we were a pretty understanding employer and had a workplace that supported our people in family matters. However, before I reached my office, a somewhat sickening thought occurred to me: If we were really that family-friendly, why hadn't Linda asked for a couple of hours off to take her children to meet their teachers?
"There were only two answers to this question, and both were bad: Linda was either afraid to ask if she could have the time off, or it never occurred to her to ask."
GAINS AND LOSSES. That elevator incident ushered in a new way of thinking for Maxwell: an emphasis on work/life balance that he hopes will become deeply ingrained at Maxwell Locke & Ritter, the 47-person accounting-and-consulting firm where he is leading partner. The philosophy is summarized neatly in the overhead transparency that begins many meetings at the Austin (Tex.)-based enterprise: "No success at work is worth a failure at home."
You may remember that in last month's column, I wrote about a report describing successful work/life initiatives by large companies that also held lessons for small businesses. It was only later, naturally, that I received a booklet about small business initiatives written last year by One Small Step, a San Francisco-based nonprofit employer group. The New Workplace: Innovative Work/Live Strategies from Small Businesses looks at 24 companies, each with fewer than 400 employees, and describes their work/life programs.
One of the booklet's examples is the clever parental-leave policy at Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group in Troy, N.Y., which sets out to remedy the fact that, in many companies, new parents often fail to return from maternity leave. But Kaleel Jamison provides an incentive to come back: extended parental leave to employees who agree to return to work for longer periods of time. Employees who promise to stay for at least two years get the maximum: 12 weeks off with full pay, followed by a similar period of unpaid leave. While there is no written contract, Catherine Volk, the firm's vice-president and general counsel, says no one has reneged on a pledge.
OFFICE WITH A HEART. I was especially struck by the creativity of work/life policies at Maxwell Locke & Ritter. There is, for example, the bulletin board that cost the firm the princely sum of $15. It is the place where employees fix and share mementos of their family lives -- an office version of the magnet-encrusted family fridge.
The firm's policies are crafted with all employees in mind, not just parents of young children. "Reasonable" paid time off, for example, goes not only to parents who want to attend school events, but also to employees looking after elderly relatives. It's even available to employees with no family obligations who would like to do volunteer work. Flexible working hours, meanwhile, have proven useful to employees taking college classes. It's quite a change from the snap-to-attention culture in which Maxwell cut his professional teeth two decades ago.
While the firm's efforts haven't prevented some valuable employees from leaving, Maxwell credits the company's culture with boosting worker retention and promoting the firm's general success -- two things he sees as helping to attract fresh talent in coming years, when many experts predict a growing labor shortage. The efforts, he says, are repaid "in a multiple" of the costs.
Good business reasons all. But I'll confess the quote from Maxwell that I triple-underlined in my notes had little to do with business imperatives. "Almost everybody needs a job, and virtually everybody wants to have a life," Maxwell told me. "...They ought to be able to have both. It's almost an inalienable right." 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 BusinessWeek, Working Woman, and the Web site iGuide.