Smaller Firms in Vanguard of Flex Practices

By Gina Ruiz

Nov. 23, 2005

In spite of economic volatility, companies are plowing forward with innovative practices to suit the evolving needs of today’s dynamic workforce, according to the National Study of Employers published recently by the Families and Work Institute.

    The institute surveyed a national sample of 1,092 companies to shed light on the trends of more than 13 benefits–including flexibility, child care assistance and health care–that are available in the workplace.

    A dissection of the study shows that big companies offer benefit packages that are often more abundant and comprehensive than those of their smaller counterparts–not surprising, considering that large employers have deeper pockets and more resources at their disposal. What is mystifying, however, is that these generous fringe benefits do not guarantee corporate titans a definitive edge over smaller firms in terms of generating positive capital among employees.

    This incongruity could perhaps be explained by the fact that small companies are at the forefront when it comes to offering flexibility. Small companies appear to have a better handle than large ones on making work “work” for both employer and the employee, particularly in the arena of flexibility, explains Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute. The employer study found that small companies are significantly more likely than large companies to offer flexibility to all or most employees.

    Galinsky notes that flexibility is one of the most prized benefits in the workplace because it gives employees greater control over important lifestyle decisions, such as phasing into retirement, compressing a workweek or taking time off. Workers at small companies enjoy greater access to a “culture of flexibility,” meaning that supervisors are more supportive and understanding when work/life issues emerge. What this ultimately translates into is a work environment in which employees perceive their supervisors as being in tune with their needs, Galinsky says. And under these circumstances, employee retention is high, as is productivity.

    Ward’s Furniture exemplifies how small companies are on the cutting edge when it comes to practicing flexibility. The Long Beach, California, company employs 17 staffers, many of whom have been around for 10 to 20 years. Brad Ward, vice president of the 60-year-old family business, attributes the longevity of employee retention to the company’s willingness to adapt to the needs of workers.

    “We have good people and we don’t want to lose them,” Ward says, adding that some of the company’s flexibility practices allow workers to share job responsibilities and work part time from home. Flexibility has paid off for the company. While other furniture retailers have gone through tough times in neighboring communities and states, Ward’s Furniture is experiencing 5 percent to 10 percent growth in annual sales.

    Discerning whether the enhanced flexibility practices found at small companies trump the far-reaching benefit packages offered by large companies would be a tough call–the needs of employees vary drastically. However, many large companies are not taking any chances with the importance that flexibility plays in the workforce, and they are striving to gain lost ground, Galinsky noted.

    Deloitte & Touche USA, for example, is rolling out the Team Effectiveness Process, a program designed to help its 32,000 employees achieve a better balance between work and life. Through a series of dialogues and surveys, the program will enable supervisors to better understand and respond to the needs of workers, says Stan Smith, national director for the company’s Employer of Choice Next Generation Initiatives. The program also provides software tools to help supervisors keep track of flexible work scheduling for their employees.

    Technology helps employees find a balance between work and life because it allows them to work virtually, notes Smith, adding that flexibility is an important tool in employee retention. “All of our research indicates that flexibility is paramount,” he says. “We want to keep our workers happy. Losing specialization is too costly.”

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