How do smart employers make work “work” in a down economy?

260 award-winning employers across the US use innovative approaches and practices including:

  • Giving employees four Fridays off in the summer in lieu of raises the organization cannot afford
  • Allowing employees to work at home 1-2 days a week to save on commuting costs
  • Giving employees the option to take unlimited, unpaid personal time off during the downturn, while keeping full medical benefits and the right to return to their jobs
  • Allowing employees greater scheduling flexibility if their spouse has lost a job or seen their hours reduced and the family needs to make changes
  • Reassigning responsibilities when no hiring is possible
  • Offering employees reduced hours or additional unpaid days off to avoid layoffs

A new study from Families and Work Institute finds that 94% of U.S. employers are maintaining or increasing the flexibile work options they offer. In fact, many report they are using flexibility and as a tool to manage through the recession. FWI is highlighting 260 award-winning employers from around the country by geography and by innovative practice, allowing readers to search for organizations in their area, or find examples of best practices from around the nation. All of the employers are 2008 winners of The Alfred P. Sloan Award for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility, presented each year through a partnership between FWI, the Institute for a Competitive Workplace and the Twiga Foundation. Winners range from small businesses to multinational corporations.

For example, all 25 AAA Fair Credit staff members can take their birthday as a paid holiday, and all employees who work at least 30 hours get 1.5 paid hours a week to either work out, take a class, see a counselor, contribute to the community, explore spiritual questions or acquire new skills. Does that necessitate a lot of bureaucratic record keeping? An AAA Fair Credit representative says it does not. The program operates on the honor system and is believed to have contributed to comparatively low medical costs among the organization’s personnel.

A Speaker for You wants its employees to think like entrepreneurs. The Louisville event-planning company believes no team member can be successful unless the larger team wins, and extends its people breaks that the average company would not offer. Trusted employees can set their own schedules, take days off and schedule vacation days. “We have found that giving this kind of freedom to employees brings enhanced rewards to the company,” says President Tim Green. Employees have proven trustworthy over a long period of time. “That is why we continue to grow.”

With over 3000 employees, accounting firm BDO Seidman CEO Jack Weisbaum wrote that “Organizations need to explore workplace flexibility not just as a knee-jerk tactic to cut labor costs, but as a broader cost-cutting and business growth strategy to retain valued professionals, meet customer demands and work smarter in a resource-challenged, global business environment.”

Impact of the Recession
Since 94% of employers are maintaining or increasing the flexibility they offer, the large majority of employers in the United States appear to value flexibility and even to be using it as a tool to manage the recession. But then the question arises, exactly how are they using it?

Some companies are familiar names: CapitalOne company’s commitment to flexibility has only grown in the face of today’s economic challenges and has worked to hold down employee contributions to benefits costs this year. Living up to its commitment to support employees’ well-being, the company offers its Richmond and McLean health centers to employees’ spouses, domestic partners and children—for free.

Some companies might give flexible work opportunities to white-collar executives, but they think twice before doing the same with construction workers. Not Aguirre Roden. The Dallas architecture, engineering and construction company scored high in giving all its employees time off and choices in managing their schedule. The option of being away from work “for whatever reason,” as the firm puts it, is open to all employees at Aguirre Roden; the company says it encourages involvement in family activities during work hours. To make sure an absence never affects business deadlines, Aguirre provides flexibility in scheduling.

As the economy worsened, Bon Secours Health System in Richmond, VA created an economic relief package, including financial education, seminars for employees’ unemployed family members, a crisis fund providing monetary assistance to employees in financial trouble, trading time off for cash, a housing assistance program, discounts at hundreds of area businesses, and a wide range of college tuition assistance for employees and their families. An interactive Web tool houses all of these benefits in one place.

Microchip Technology, a two-time Sloan Award winner in Chandler, Arizona with 1,485 employees, is the only semiconductor company that hasn’t made a layoff in more than five years. It looked for and found other ways to cut costs, including pay cuts and shutdowns for salaried employees and rotational shutdowns for factory workers. These strategies were designed to take the needs of employees into account. The company-wide shutdown was scheduled to coincide with spring break for the largest number of employees’ school-aged children while others were given the option to schedule other weeks for their shutdowns. Factory employees were able to use vacation time and personal time in lieu of full reduction of their rotational schedules. And all employees were given the option to take unlimited, unpaid personal time during the downturn, while keeping full medical benefits and the right to return to their jobs.

As a manufacturer and supplier of concrete construction materials—among the hardest hit industries by the recession—Salt River Materials Group in Scottsdale, Arizona instituted a voluntary reduced workweek. Participating employees can choose to reduce their workweek by 5%, 10% or 20% for a determined period of time. They can also choose to use their paid time off for the reduction in hours or take it as unpaid leave, reducing their pay accordingly without affecting other company benefits. Many of the company’s 28 employees volunteered and appreciate this option as an alternative to layoffs. All things considered, this company is also doing well during these difficult times.

Employers are providing direct financial assistance to employees. At 1-800 CONTACTS, Inc., a direct-to-consumer retail contact lens business in Salt Lake City, Utah with 850 employees, the company’s Associate Outreach Fund offers emergency one-time financial assistance to employees in a financial crisis. More than $14,000 in emergency relief was distributed in 2008, enabling a number of employees to keep their homes. And BCD Low Voltage Systems, Inc. in Phoenix, Arizona, with 21 employees, offers short-term loans for emergencies such as car repair. Likewise, the Cafe Rio, a restaurant company headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, with 16 employees in its corporate office, created a zero-interest loan program and has about $40,000 out on any given month. An architectural firm, Cooper Roberts Simonsen Associates, Inc., in Salt Lake City, Utah, with 57 employees, created a We Care Fund. Supported through voluntary payroll deductions, the trust provides money to employees facing difficult circumstances, such as unexpected medical bills.

Leave Emerging
Three-time Sloan Award winner KPMG LLP has created a shared leave program. Employees with serious illnesses or other emergencies can receive up to 12 weeks of additional paid personal from other employees who donate their unused time off. The company reports that fully 100% of needs for donated time are met by KPMG employees, usually within minutes of an employee making an anonymous request.

The management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, with winning sites in Charleston, South Carolina and Washington, DC, recently introduced a virtual FlexWork Forum for employees on part-time or job-sharing schedules. This program allows them—as well as staff working outside a Booz Allen office—to network, stay in touch with the company’s culture and share best practices. Open to all Booz Allen staff, this forum is a great source of information for anyone considering a flexible work arrangement and for managers supervising people who are working flexibly.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—Research Triangle Park, with 1,200 employees in Durham, North Carolina, has developed a “leave bank”to provide a limited amount of additional paid time off in emergency situations to staff who have exhausted all their vacation and leave time. Likewise, Winona ORC Industries, Inc., a nonprofit provider of employment and vocational training for people with disabilities in Winona, Minnesota, enables its 47 employees to donate their unused vacation and sick time to each other.

Beyond the basics
Employers have expanded the use of flexibility to ensure that all employees have access throughout their day, year and career, and they are providing coaches to ensure their offerings will be used. RSM McGladrey Inc., an accounting, tax, and business consulting firm with a winning site in Rochester, Minnesota, now offers its employees FlexYear, which provides a schedule similar to a teacher’s. FlexCareer, another option, enables employees to take up to five years off for personal reasons and provides resources, such as subsidized training, to keep participants connected with the organization and industry so they can come back to work with greater ease. Coach-on-Call gives employees free access to a professional coach offering advice and support on work-life issues. And the New Parent Coach provides resources, support and information to help new parents navigate through pregnancy, leave and the transition back to work.

With winning sites in Atlanta, Georgia; Birmingham, Alabama; Chicago, Illinois; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the accounting firm Ernst & Young (a three-time winner) offers very generous parental leave policies through an initiative called My JournEY. New mothers receive a three-month, fully-paid leave in addition to the vacation time they’ve accrued. They can take an additional ten weeks of family medical leave (FMLA), which is unpaid, and negotiate for more. When they return to work, lactation programs are available. Fathers get two weeks of paid leave—six weeks if they’re the primary caregiver—and ten weeks of unpaid leave under FMLA. New adoptive parents get 16 weeks away from the office, six of which are paid for parents who are primary caregivers. If a professional chooses to stop working after having a child, the firm stays in touch, through a mentor selected by the employee. Having a mentor keeps the employee connected to the firm and enables a better return in a year or two.

The law firm Alston & Bird LLP, with 995 employees in Atlanta, Georgia, wanted to ensure that its non-exempt employees have access to flexibility that is comparable with what its professionals are offered. It became the first law firm in that city to offer 9/75 and four-day work schedules to its non-exempt employees, allowing them to work 75 hours over eight or nine days instead of ten.

Focusing on Wellness
Given the increasing stress of the recession and spiraling health care costs, it is not surprising that leading employers are promoting prevention and wellness. What’s interesting is how they are using the notion of “employees helping employees,” often assisted by screenings, healthy lifestyle programs, and “coaches.”

For example, Rice University in Houston, Texas has an on-campus subsidized Weight Watchers program open to its 2,700 employees. Collectively, employees have lost more than 2,000 pounds. They also have access to life-style screenings and yoga classes, and they can shop for healthy foods at a weekly farmers’ market on the campus.

In Louisville, Kentucky, Delta Dental of Kentucky uses two fitness trainers to work with its 85 employees. The cost is minimal—$5 per paycheck.

BECU, a credit union in Tukwila, Washington, holds a wellness fair every year, giving employees an opportunity to check their blood pressure, cholesterol and other key health indicators. For everyday issues, its 410 employees have access to a 24-hour “nurse help hotline.”

Berkeley College, in Morris County, New Jersey, offers onsite screening, health risk assessments and a health coach for its 1,100 employees—and in the process has slowed the increase in its medical costs.

Employers have created systems to monitor overwork as a way of promoting wellness and improving the energy of employees. Fenwick & West LLP, a law firm in San Francisco, California with 245 employees, has created “workflow coordinators” and two “balanced hours advisors” who review attorney hours regularly to ensure that those on reduced schedules are not subject to “schedule creep” or overlooked for good assignments.

Similarly, in most offices, KPMG has created Wellness Scorecards to determine if someone is working too much overtime or skipping vacation. Supervisors are encouraged to use these scorecards to monitor their people’s progress in taking better care of themselves. Employers have created systems to monitor overwork as a way of promoting wellness and improving the energy of employees.

Employers are developing and using performance metrics to ensure that their programs do not discriminate, are used by employees and yield results. Grant Thornton LLP, an accounting and management consulting company in Dallas, Texas with 320 employees, has created Partner Performance Metrics to hold of?ce managing partners accountable for the turnover and retention of women in their local offices, embedding metrics into the ?rm’s partner performance management system. These efforts have paid off by increasing the number of women partners from 31 to 81 in just five years, an increase of 160%. The firm offers considerable career flexibility to encourage employees to develop and grow at the firm, whatever the changes in their personal and family lives.

These examples are just a sampling of the 260 employers featured in the 2009 Bold Ideas Guide. To purchase a hardcopy of the guide please email Marline Lambert.

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2 Responses to How do smart employers make work “work” in a down economy?

  1. Is there any evidence to suggest that working from home and fridays off actually increases productivity? I understand fully the benefit to voluntary reduced hours but most people when times get tough want to work more even though they are much more willing to take reduced hours in lieu of not having employment. We currently have 135,000 Unemployed in Las Vegas and even though the Gaming Industry accounts for only 20% of the workforce, there simply isn’t enough work to even cut back hours.

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