Actions Speak Louder than Words

Offering employees the means to balance work and life.

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According to the Department of Labor’s 2004 statistics, women comprise approximately 46 percent of the workforce in the Unites States. Additionally, female employees are becoming an increasingly large percentage of today’s middle and upper management teams.

So what is a company to do when faced with talented women who want or need to work, yet also need to maintain their home life? The answer for an increasing number of companies is to accommodate their employees’ needs by offering flexible, family friendly policies—like flex time and job sharing—that enable women to excel at their jobs and manage their family life.

Corporate America sets high standards

Work/life balance policies are becoming a large blip on corporate America’s radar. For twenty years, Working Mother magazine has tracked these policies and publishes a yearly list of the 100 best companies for women employees. Some of the policies out there are truly astounding. For example, IKEA, a multinational home furnishings company, which has earned a spot on the list for the past three years, has workplace benefits that include paid medical and dental insurance for employees that work at least 20 hours or more per week, paid maternity leave and time off for child adoption, the availability of elder care assistance, and tuition assistance, says its Public Affairs Manager Clive Cashman. The company also allows flexible work arrangements, including job sharing, telecommuting and condensed work weeks. “For IKEA, one result of these policies, which strongly reflect their general corporate culture, is that their employee turnover rate is roughly 50 percent less than the average for other retail companies,” says Cashman. “The ability to keep our employees’ knowledge within the company and avoid constant retraining has proven to be smart business,” he says. “It is our goal to do good business while being a good business,” he adds.

You don’t have to be a large, multinational company to gain recognition. Arnold & Porter LLP, a Washington D.C. based law firm also made the 2005 Working Mother list of top 100 companies for women. It provides work/life benefits such as onsite day care, which lets employees share lunch with their children at the firm’s cafeteria. The firm also offers many flexible work options, including compressed and flextime work schedules. Arnold & Porter has also hired a career development manager to counsel attorneys on such issues as career advancement, and work/life balance.

How does multifamily compare?

“Although women comprise almost 50 percent of the American work force, this ratio is far greater at multifamily companies with women holding approximately 70 percent of the staff positions,” says Christopher Lee, president of CEL & Associates, Inc., a multifamily consulting firm. “And, while the ability to balance family and work life may not have been a hot ticket item a few years ago, our recent employee satisfaction surveys are indicating that employees at multifamily companies are rating ‘the ability to have a balanced life, along with benefits and compensation’ as some of the top criteria for job selection, as well as retention,” says Lee.

With that said, however, “some multifamily companies do not appear to be in the forefront when it comes to formalizing such policies,” points out Lee. The fact is that many multifamily companies are having a hard time finding qualified employees, he explains. “So they’re offering flexibility to the extent they can, just to encourage good hires to sign up,” he adds. “Plus, with the advent of certain technologies—cell phones, blackberries, wireless pagers—businesses have a lot more flexibility in general,” points out Lee. “Knowledge can now travel with the worker and doesn’t have to stay in the office,” he adds. “But the multifamily industry could do a better job at adopting and promoting a better balance between work and family life.”

Yet, with women having such a dominant role in multifamily, we asked these companies a question: What are you doing for your employees? Is multifamily keeping up with the rest of corporate America, which is realizing the value of retaining talented women by helping them to balance work with demanding home lives, or is multifamily lagging behind? Here’s what we found.

While some of the top multifamily organizations may not formalize their flexibility with regard to employees, they have long connected the dots from fair and flexible policies to a good and profitable business result. “We’re certainly not forgetting the special demands placed on our female workers, or any of our workers with families,” says Julie Smith, president of Maryland-based Bozzuto Management Company. “Multifamily by definition is a more flexible environment for working mothers,” says Smith. “Our onsite management offices are open seven days a week, which allows a lot of employees to choose which days are convenient for them to work. For example, we find a lot of our working mothers choosing weekend shifts so that their husbands can stay home and watch the children and they can save on childcare. Plus, the extended hours for many management and leasing offices lets employees stagger their hours to work around their families’ schedules.” While Smith’s company hasn’t initiated a formal policy specifically addressing such considerations, she’s confident that their over all human resources policies have the effect of fostering a balance between work and family life. Their corporate attitude is that they want to “take care of the families who are taking care of the company.” This attitude she feels, is reflected in the fact that the company’s healthcare plan covers vision and provides assistance with orthodonture, and that employees contribute the same amount to pay for healthcare regardless of whether they’re single or have four children. The company also offers such benefits as an employee assistance program, which covers family and grief counseling, and a “cafeteria plan,” which lets employees withhold a certain amount of pre-tax money to cover childcare and healthcare. “And when a good employee needs us to work with her to address specific needs, we are happy to do so,” she adds.

Kellie Falk-Tillet, co-chief executive officer Drucker and Falk, the nation’s 37th largest multifamily management company (26,404 units), agrees with Smith that just because multifamily companies aren’t publicizing their work/life balance policies, doesn’t mean that the needs of women in the industry aren’t being met. Like any industry, different companies have different reputations, points out Falk-Tillet. Some may be known for a “take no prisoners,” bottom-line centric attitude, while others promote a “family atmosphere.” She views her company as one of the latter and feels that people who think they’ll need more flexibility in the work place should seek out companies with a family-friendly culture. “We may not have specific written policies, but we certainly understand what happens at home,” says Falk-Tillet. “If an employee has been with us for a long time period and has shown her worth, we will definitely do what we can to keep that employee.” For Falk-Tillet’s company, that has meant allowing an employee to take a demotion in order to have more time to spend with a young family. “When that employee felt ready to dedicate more time to the company, we re-instated her to an executive level position,” Falk-Tillet explains. In fact Falk-Tillet’s assistant has worked only until 2:30 for the past five years so that she could be home in time to pick up her children. The key, says Falk-Tillet, is to have a detailed job description for each employee that lays out exactly what the employee’s duties are. “If the employee can fulfill the job description while working under a flexible arrangement, then I don’t see any problem,” says Falk-Tillet.

An industry built on family tradition

From a business perspective, studies show that work/life balance policies have no negative impact on the bottom line and have even been responsible for increasing revenue. Most companies are interested in work/life balance because once these policies are in place, they are instrumental in recruiting and retaining good employees, fostering morale and productivity among employees, and ultimately driving up profit, says Jim Bird, chief executive officer of worklifebalance.com, a work/life balance training company. Additionally, points out Bird, a 2004 Gallup study of over one million employees showed that productivity plummets by up to 50 percent and profit falls by as much as 44 percent when employees aren’t happy with their boss. “The study also showed that the number one reason for employee dissatisfaction was the perception that their boss had no respect for the added demands of their home lives,” adds Bird.

Multifamily, and real estate in general, is handed down from a fairly traditional history. While there are a number of the men at the top of these organizations, it is also an industry that draws its roots from the family business. Whether it’s been handed down through generations, or it’s just run like a family business, it’s an industry with a solid understanding of home life. For indeed, providing homes for families is our business.

Bozzuto Management, and Drucker and Falk are just two multifamily companies whose actions speak louder than words. And why not, it’s just good business: lower turnover, more productive employees and great ROI.

It’s good practice to listen and adapt to the needs of employees and react with policies that foster loyalty, longevity and the opportunity for employees to succeed. Drawn right from the textbooks of Business 101, you’ll find that in exchange, your employees will hold up their part of the bargain and your company will capture the benefit on the bottom line.

Author: Mindy Grll