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Company Raises Productivity, Eases Stress by Redesigning Jobs

April 11, 1999|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS

Like many corporations, Fleet Financial Group took a wild ride in the last decade.

The Boston-based banking company pulled off dozens of acquisitions and laid off thousands of employees.

Despite its attempts to create family-friendly policies, many workers and their spouses felt the company didn't care about them and the stress they were feeling, a survey found.

"All of our jobs are like vacuums sucking up our lives," one employee commented.

So Chief Executive Terry Murray went to the Radcliffe Public Policy Institute at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass., to explore what more the company could do. An experiment was begun to redesign work at two sites to help employees balance their lives on and off the job, thereby improving productivity.

That pilot project, which concluded in 1997, brought higher employee retention, several production improvements and overwhelming accounts of better balance between work and personal life, including a 35% reduction in the number of employees reporting sleep disturbances. The company is now expanding the work changes.

What Fleet learned is not particularly difficult to grasp. Workers have jobs. Workers have lives. Often, both parents work.

Managers at many companies are trying to find ways to help workers juggle all of this. While these efforts might create a warm glow in the workplace, they are driven by cold business rationale.

The Radcliffe Public Policy Institute, with a grant from the Ford Foundation, has just published a guide to help employers implement policies that improve workers' lives as well as the bottom line.

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"Work and Life 2000: An Employer's Guide" describes various initiatives and policies that businesses can try, and highlights success stories at several companies. It also suggests methods for evaluating the success of these programs.

"In the past two decades, the juggling act between life at work and life outside work has become increasingly difficult for America's workers," said Paula Rayman, director of the Radcliffe Public Policy Institute, which works to shape policy on important social issues. Most of the institute's projects have focused on work and the economy.

"Smart business leaders will recognize the importance of work, family and community integration," Rayman said. Recent studies have proved "that family-friendly policies can lead to improved work force recruitment and retention, increased loyalty and improved productivity."

The institute has found that most efforts involve work reorganization, benefits or both.

Work is reorganized through a restructuring of jobs and duties, telecommuting, part-time and job-share opportunities and flexible scheduling. Benefits include child care or elder care, ranging from referral services to on-site care; paid family and medical leave; time off from work to participate in school and community events; and business travel policies, such as limits on frequency of trips or length of trips.

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In its pilot project, Fleet Financial employees at two work sites identified issues that were harming work-life balance. To address them, the company redeployed tasks, modified the way work was assigned, and implemented telecommuting and flex-time arrangements. Employee stress declined, turnover was lower than in other employee groups, and production targets were met or exceeded.

The guide suggests specific steps businesses can take as they explore what policies and programs they wish to adopt, starting with asking the employees what their challenges are (always ensuring confidentiality).

The guide also highlights some companies that are doing things right, such as Ventura-based Patagonia Inc.; Eli Lilly & Co. of Indianapolis; and Xerox of Stamford, Conn.

One company, Human Kinetics of Champaign, Ill., offers employees take-home dinners twice a week. At St. Paul Cos., an insurance firm based in St. Paul, Minn., 90% of its more than 13,500 employees choose to work nontraditional schedules.

To get a copy of Radcliffe Public Policy Institute's "Work and Life 2000: An Employer's Guide," or a separate publication examining the Radcliffe/Fleet Work and Life Integration Project, write a $15 check to Radcliffe College and mail it to Publications Orders, Radcliffe Public Policy Institute, 69 Brattle St., Cambridge, MA 02138. Or order both publications for $20. For more information, visit the college's Web site at http://www.radcliffe.edu/pubpol or call (617) 496-3478.

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Has your company developed an interesting way to help employees balance work life and family life? Write to Balancing Act, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Or send e-mail to nancy.rivera.brooks@latimes.com.

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