Monthlong paid sabbaticals, reimbursements for elder care and dog-walking expenses, emergency child care, and free coaching on college applications are strategies that winners of the 2017 When Work Works Award use to attract, engage and retain employees.
When Work Works is a national annual initiative sponsored by the Society for Human Resource Management to highlight organizations that exemplify effective and flexible workplaces. These organizations gain a competitive edge as they help their employees better manage their work and personal responsibilities.
The When Work Works Award, a project of SHRM, is a nationwide initiative that brings research on workplace effectiveness and flexibility into community and business practice. SHRM gives special thanks to the Families and Work Institute, the originator of the award.
HR Magazine spoke with HR leaders at four of the 298 winners to learn more about their programs.
Kyra Morris, president and owner, certified financial planner
Morris Financial Concepts Inc., Mount Pleasant, S.C.
This financial planning firm offers each of its 10 full-time employees a paid, monthlong sabbatical after every five years, in addition to paid annual vacation. During sabbaticals, employees are expected to completely disconnect from work. Staff can bring their babies—up to age 6 months—to the office. These days, though, the company is seeing more people bring their dogs to work; any well-behaved pet is allowed.
What’s the idea behind sabbaticals and how do you make them work?
It’s an idea I got from a financial planning firm in Columbia, S.C. We started them in 2007 when we had seven employees. At the time, people were working during their vacations—which is something we discouraged. But they did it anyway, which led to the idea of sabbaticals. Unplugging during sabbaticals is not only encouraged, it is required.
Most of my team members are Millennials, and this is working for this age group and older employees. People love it. And even though you have to work for the firm for five years before you become eligible, it’s an effective recruitment tool as well.
Planning is key. At review time, we remind employees when their break is coming up and ask them to think about how they will use it. We also put the days when someone will be away on our calendar at the beginning of the year. There are block-out dates in March and April when employees involved with preparing taxes for clients are not allowed to take time off.
I encourage people to travel, but not everyone does. One employee stayed home and cleaned her closets. It’s a way to help staff to do something they want to do but can’t during their regular workday. The hard part is that an employee’s spouse or significant other doesn’t get the month off as well.
We also build in more unplugged time for employees who are caregivers and can’t leave town by adjusting their workload. They have regular time built into their schedule to manage their needs; however, they do not get longer sabbaticals.
Our culture is based on the idea that you’re going to have backup as long as you’re a team player. We don’t even say “work/life balance”—it’s life.
Any downside to an unlimited vacation policy?
It scared people initially. We lost one employee as a direct result of some of the changes we put in place, like no longer tracking sick days or vacation time. Basically, time off is now unlimited. But the flip side is “Get your work done.” More responsibility and accountability became part of the culture, so we had to build in new processes for tracking workflows and accomplishing tasks. The woman who left said, “I don’t want to be managed.” Another employee didn’t understand how to plan a vacation without set boundaries and said, “If you don’t tell me how much vacation I’m supposed to take, I don’t know if I will take vacation.” She had to see how others handled having more freedom. In the spring, she took a sabbatical to Italy, Austria, Croatia, Poland and Germany.
What’s your advice to other employers interested in implementing this?
Do it! Give employees the sense that they are in charge of their own lives, and the results will be awesome. But it all starts with hiring the right people.
Jillian Zemp, employee enablement manager
Goodway Group, Jenkintown, Pa.
Founded in 1929 as a printing company, the brick-and-mortar enterprise morphed into a virtual company in 2006. About 95 percent of its approximately 400 employees work from home. Others work from client sites across the U.S. or as “digital nomads” who shift locations seasonally. The company maintains a headquarters to host large meetings and has space for approximately 30 people who choose to work onsite.
Beginning a pilot program in the first quarter of 2017, Goodway Group began providing memberships to office-sharing networks in various U.S. cities where employees live. It has since opened it up as an official program to any office-sharing location in an employee’s home town. The space is available for staff seeking quieter surroundings than a home office may provide. Other workflex benefits include 10 weeks’ paid maternity leave to employees with two or more years of tenure. Goodway ranked No. 3 on Glassdoor’s “Employees’ Choice 50 Best Places to Work” list in 2017.
Why did you decide to become a virtual company?
We weren’t finding the right talent in bigger markets such as Philadelphia and New York. When our COO came on board, he was in Dallas and he wasn’t asked to move. Soon after that, we decided to open our searches to wherever qualified individuals were located. By the time we’d hired our fifth or sixth virtual employee, we opted to offer the remote-work option to everyone. We had 10-15 people at the time, so we started small. When someone moves to a different city—say, for a spouse’s relocation—we don’t lose that talent.
We have two all-staff annual meetings—five days in Deer Valley, Utah, in July and five days in Las Vegas in December—for planning, brainstorming and team building.
How do remote workers collaborate on team projects?
Most of my projects are team-related. My manager is in Boise, Idaho. I’m in Richmond, Va. I have teammates in Seattle, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Texas and Connecticut. We all have company-issued laptops and use Skype for meetings. We also deploy document-sharing apps and wikis to post agendas and notes, and we track work progress.
People communicate all the time; they just aren’t meeting face to face. My manager can see what I’m working on, and sending him instant messages is the equivalent of knocking on his door.
How can companies create more-flexible cultures?
Remote work should be spread across the organization, from the top down. A handful of people dialing in to a meeting don’t participate quite the same way as everyone else in the room. There also must be transparency about when people are working.
I usually log in to my computer around 7 a.m. and work until about 8:30 a.m., when I take my kids to the bus stop and then go to the gym. I return to work around 10 a.m. and continue until about 5 p.m. I can do my best work when I’m not worrying about rushing to and from an office to care of my family.
Katie Augsburger, senior manager of employee experience
Xplane, Portland, Ore.
This 24-year-old privately held design consultancy has 29 employees in the U.S. and 32 in other locations. It was ranked No. 3 on Fortune magazine’s 2016 list of the “50 Best Workplaces for Flexibility.” Among its winning initiatives:
- A $200 maximum monthly allotment for reimbursable expenses related to work/life balance such as baby-sitting, dog walking, yoga classes, gym fees, travel memberships, massage/chiropractic care and housekeeping.
- Eight weeks of parental leave, four to six weeks of leave for short-term disability and unlimited paid time off after the first year of employment.
- The ability for employees to set their own schedules—such as working from home multiple times per week—without supervisor approval, although they must notify co-workers and managers affected by schedule changes.
How does the monthly allotment work? Isn’t that expensive?
I was a little skeptical when I joined the company, but I looked at the numbers. While we invest more than a lot of companies, doing so allows employees to use the money as they see fit. Giving workers autonomy is critical to job satisfaction and retention. People are thoughtful and don’t always use the full amount.
What advice would you give organizations about implementing workflex benefits?
Do pilot programs and conduct companywide experiments. Tell people you’re trying something new and don’t know if you’re going to keep doing it. It’s important for employees to understand why something was or wasn’t successful.
For every amazing benefit we’ve adopted, there has been one that hasn’t worked. Don’t be afraid to try different things and be OK with not moving forward on some. I’m honest with my executive team, too. I tell them I’m going to throw a lot of spaghetti at the wall and not all of it will stick.
Being able to experiment is one of the great things about being at a small company. Companies should trust the HR function to make a mess once in a while.
Right now, we’re testing changes to our paid-time-off policy. Currently, some of our employees aren’t taking as much time off as we think necessary to recharge, so in 2018 Xplane will experiment with a program that will strongly encourage employees to take a minimum of three weeks of paid vacation each year in addition to our holiday closure that extends from Christmas to New Year’s Day.
How do you deal with equity and fairness issues?
You must treat each employee as an individual. You may have to make a one-off accommodation, for example, for someone who wants to take a trip of a lifetime to India. You have to be able to communicate to everyone about “why” an exception is being made.
Collette Taylor, senior vice president, human resources and facilities
Astellas Pharma U.S. Inc., Northbrook, Ill.
This pharmaceutical company is a U.S. affiliate of Tokyo-based Astellas Pharma Inc. In 2017, it was No. 25 on the Great Place to Work and Fortune magazine’s list of “50 Best Companies for Giving Back.”
Astellas employs more than 2,500 people at three U.S. locations. Its benefits package, called StarLife Family Care Solutions, offers employees assistance at every stage of their life, including:
- Child care. A service helps parents find qualified short-term baby sitters, longer-term day care options and emergency backup when there is an interruption to their child care.
- Homework Connection. This free, on-demand tutoring service is available for students in grade school through college. Tutors cover English, math, science and reading as well as preparation for the SAT, ACT and standardized tests in all 50 states.
- College-admissions coaching.
- Pet insurance, walkers and sitters.
- Paid time off to volunteer. Full-time employees receive five paid days to devote time to a charitable organization of their choice. Staff is encouraged to take Friday afternoons off year-round, and some people use the time to volunteer.
- Medicare and Medicaid assistance for eligible employees, their parents and in-laws as well as backup care for adults.
Tell us about your company’s college-admissions coaching benefit.
Each year, we host former collegiate advisors who guide parents on financial planning and ensuring that their children are applying to the best schools for their academic pursuits. This includes submitting eligible high school juniors for the National Merit Astellas Scholarship Program and providing assistance with students’ college applications, including multiple rounds of edits. Employees have told us that the program is extremely helpful.
What elder care benefits do you offer?
We provide resources for employees’ parents and parents-in-law to help them remain independent for as long as possible. For example, professional care managers can make onsite visits to ensure that the home or facility is safe and accessible for aging parents. We also offer legal services to help with wills, powers of attorney and assisted-living documents. With a single phone call, these professionals can deliver a full plan that coordinates care to employees and their parents, no matter where they live.
What are the top three business benefits you’ve achieved with your workflex benefits?
Attracting and recruiting top talent, retention, and engagement. Because we provide care options for children, elderly family members and pets, employees are able to balance their responsibilities at work and at home at a time when they might have otherwise left the workforce. And our benefits reinforce our culture, which encourages employees to bring their whole selves to work.
Think your organization has exemplary workflex policies to share? To learn more or nominate a company, visit www.whenworkworks.org.
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WRITTEN BY Kathy Gurchiek
Kathy Gurchiek is an associate editor on SHRM’s online news team.