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Lead Your Team Strategy

Support Your Employees by Creating a Family-Friendly Workplace

Credit: Pressmaster/Shutterstock

Imagine that as you are prepping for a big presentation at work, you get a call from your child's school saying that she is sick and needs to be picked up immediately. Or think about scrambling to find affordable, quality child care for your newborn before your parental leave runs out. Or consider the struggle of holding down a job while you're caring for a parent who is recovering from heart surgery as well as a toddler who needs constant attention.

These sorts of conflicts are all too commonplace for people in today's workforce. According to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the nearly 90 percent of American families with children in 2015, at least one parent was employed. For the working parents in these families, trying to find a balance between work obligations and family demands can be all-consuming and exhausting. 

As a result, more and more workers now look for employers who understand that an individual's personal and the professional life cannot always be distinctly compartmentalized. In fact, according to a 2014 report by The Council of Economic Advisers (a White House agency), a third of employees – including nearly 50 percent of working parents – have turned down a job because it conflicted with their family responsibilities.

As more owners in businesses of all sizes have become aware of this development, they have begun to implement a host of family-friendly policies that will help them recruit and retain the best possible employees, according to Sodexo's 2015 Workplace Trends Report. These family-friendly policies are helping to increase employee morale, job satisfaction and productivity while reducing absenteeism and disengagement.

"Unsurprisingly, it is extremely difficult to balance work and family life," said Ola Danilina, CEO and founder of the tech PR firm PMBC Group. "If your employees perceive you as understanding, they will be more likely to be more loyal workers, making up for any time they miss for family matters."  

While family-friendly workplace policies can take many forms, companies need to consider looking beyond the basics if they really want to impress their workers.

"In the highly competitive professional job market, you need to pay to play," said Valerie Frederickson, founder and CEO of HR consulting and executive search firm FPL Partners. "Standard, run-of-the-mill benefits such as health, life, dental, vision [and] disability insurance, 401(k) matches and dependent flex-spend accounts are givens, and don't even level the playing field."

Employers that are looking to stand out from the crowd may want to examine how to offer some variation of the following innovative, family-friendly options:

Perhaps the most coveted benefit for working parents is flextime. This may include job sharing, a compressed work week, shift work, teleworking, remote work or just the freedom to alter work hours when needed. All of these flexible work options empower employees by letting them arrange their work schedules in a way that accommodates their family life and personal needs.

At BambooHR, an HR software provider for small- and medium-size businesses, this flexibility is referred to as an "anti-workaholic" policy, according to COO and co-founder Ryan Sanders.

"As part of that policy, we offer flexible schedules so our team members can get kids off to school in the morning, make time for a dance recital or school performance or leave a little early to go camping for the weekend. These events in life don't happen often, but they are precious moments that shouldn't be overlooked in the name of work," said Sanders.

This desire for flexibility is what led Susan Strayer LaMotte to leave her corporate career to start her own company, exaqueo, a workforce consulting firm and employer brand agency.

In describing her current work arrangement, LaMotte said, "We work from a virtual office space, but don't have expectations of set hours. As long as you're available for clients and do your work, you don't have to be in the office set hours. I have one toddler and a baby on the way, and finally am able to have some breathing room and flexibility in my life."

Suz O'Donnell, president of the management consulting firm Thrivatize, recommends that business owners periodically review their staff's job descriptions to determine if they can provide greater flexibility than when the positions were originally created. For example, could the amount of travel that's traditionally required for some roles in your organization be reduced through videoconferencing? she said. By reassessing how tasks have been traditionally performed, employers may identify new and creative ways of offering flexibility to workers, O'Donnell said.

The United States is the only developed country that does not offer paid parental leave, according to The Council of Economic Advisers 2014 report. Currently, only 11 percent of private-sector employers choose to offer any sort of formal paid leave that is geared specifically to meet family needs. Companies that are willing to fill this void can distinguish themselves from the pack.

Employers can explore providing a variety of paid, family-related leave options, ranging from adoption and maternity/paternity leave, to medical leave and family leave to care for an elderly parent or a disabled or ill family member. Some companies are even taking parental leave a step further by providing reintegration programs to help ease the transition of new parents as they return to work.

Whatever you choose to do, just make sure you are doing it fairly, said Danilina: "Be sure to treat your employees ... with the same amount of respect and understanding. Every family functions differently and employees may need to tend to their families to varying degrees."

Offering paid paternity leave in addition to the more traditional maternity leave is one way to honor all employees equally, Danilina added.

Child care assistance at work can come in many forms. It can include providing child care onsite at your business or offering backup child care for days when an employee's regular child care provider is unavailable or school is closed. Employers who can't provide this benefit may be able to help defer the expense of child care by paying a portion of employees' day care fees at an off-site facility. Some employers develop formal partnerships with day care centers in their area, which in turn give top priority to employees' children. This helps employers control costs, while parents are saved from the anxiety of having to deal with waiting lists.

At a minimum, employers can provide employees with updated information about local child care facilities and their fees, as well as resources about what to look for and questions to ask when parents are selecting a day care facility. This simple resource provides some guidance to new parents who may not even know how to start this process.

Some more progressive employers are introducing infants-at-work policies. Popularized by author and founder of the Parenting in the Workplace Institute Carla Moquin and implemented by some 200 organizations to date, this program allows parents to bring newborns to work until a mutually agreed-upon time — usually the first six months of life or until the baby can crawl, whichever comes first.

Federal and some state laws require that employers provide lactating workers with break times and a private place to pump breast milk during the day (check the United States Breastfeeding Committee for specifics). However, employers who want to distinguish themselves can set up a designated lactation room with breast pumps, provide breastfeeding education classes during a woman's pregnancy and arrange for the woman to have access to a lactation consultant and other support services after the baby is born. Some employers will even ship a mother's breast milk home when she is traveling for work.

Employers who implement these initiatives may find that some new moms return to work sooner, have an easier time transitioning back to the workplace, miss work less often, have higher morale and display greater job productivity.

"I have been wowed by the support and encouragement from employees and upper management at our business as I have been breastfeeding for the past year," said Rachel Stephens, SEO and customer behavior analyst at totallypromotional.com. "I take two twenty-minute breaks twice a day to pump at work. The company owner has set aside a comfortable pumping room in our newly renovated office for use by breastfeeding mothers." 

Though only offered by 3 percent of employers, according to the 2014 Benefits Survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, concierge services are gaining traction, especially among millennials. Concierge benefits can include grocery shopping, running errands, event or vacation planning, meal catering and dry cleaning. These services are especially appealing to parents, because it allows them to hand off tasks that cut into the amount of time they spend with their families at the end of the workday.

Employers who can't offer a package of full concierge services can still help employees simplify their lives by creating opportunities during the workday for wellness and personal growth. For example, Kris Best, CFO and HR manager of the advertising agency BVK, explained how her employees don't have time to seek out health care and financial planning services, but want to be educated on these topics.

"We bring these programs in-house and allow employees to participate during the workday through fitness sessions, wellness coaching and lunchtime financial education sessions," said Best. "This ensures our employees can make these things a priority in their busy lives. Offering a variety of well-being initiatives and at different times – before work, during the lunch hour and after work – is key."

Genuinely family-friendly workplaces build a sense of community among co-workers by creating opportunities for employees' families to come together in and outside of the office. These fun family events vary, based on the size of the business and the interests of the employees, but they all have the end goal of helping employees feel that they, along with their families, are seen, heard and appreciated by their employers. 

Stuart Crawford, branch manager of V.I.P. Mortgage, said that events like spirit days, holiday celebrations, sporting events and family outings help employees decompress in his stressful industry. According to Crawford, the company even offers paid volunteer time so employees can support issues that are important to their family.

Since all families – and all businesses – are different, no single approach to creating a more family-friendly work environment will fit all. But employers must be willing to listen to workers' individual needs and family situations and work with them to customize a plan that will — within the framework of company policies and procedures — offer as much work/life balance as possible.

"Establish an open, honest culture where employees feel comfortable sharing their needs with you," said O'Donnell. "You'd be surprised how many employees will look for another job when they need a flexible work arrangement, instead of just asking you. If you have an open culture, they'll be more likely to ask for what they need, and you'll have a greater chance of retaining an experienced employee."  

Paula Fernandes

Paula is a New Jersey-based writer with a Bachelor's degree in English and a Master's degree in Education. She spent nearly a decade working in education, primarily as the director of a college's service-learning and community outreach center. Her prior experience includes stints in corporate communications, publishing, and public relations for non-profits. Reach her by email.