Keeping Lives In Harmony

Employers help staffs balance family life and work.

Albert Fretz has been known to work 70-hour weeks to finish difficult projects. Fretzs bosses at Talk2 Technology Inc., a Salt Lake City-based telecommunications company, love and encourage such dedication.

His family—a wife and four young children—does not.

Luckily for Fretz, theres always the CEO to turn to. Were not talking about a chief executive officer; rather, this is the chief employee office, a denlike setting to which employees can bring their families on those inevitable nights when work gets in the way. With toys, movies, snacks and free long-distance phone service, the room is a cross between "Romper Room" and a hotel spa. And because the room is on-site, employees working late can spend time with their loved ones without compromising performance.

"My wife and kids can watch cartoons in one room while Im burning the midnight oil outside," said Fretz, a research analyst. "The setup is not ideal, but it sure beats working late and never seeing my family."

Indeed, its becoming more common for companies to accommodate employees home responsibilities—and with good reason. Recent statistics from Jupiter Research, in New York, indicate that high-tech employees work an average of 12 hours a day. Companies are drawing on the expertise of psychologists and wellness counselors to develop programs to help employees deal with the stress. Such programs include day care, flextime, concierge services and forums on child rearing. The varied list has one goal: helping workers achieve a balanced life.

According to Talk2 Chief Knowledge Officer Brad Barham, the CEO room is only one manifestation of a family-friendly company. "To keep employees happy, we have to stay attuned to the concerns of the family person," said Barham, the father of five.

To do this, Barham and his colleagues hold weekly "Brainshare" meetings at which they encourage employees to speak their minds about stress, project management and other issues.

On top of the meetings, new employees receive a bouquet of flowers with a note welcoming them to the team; and when an employee has a birthday, an anniversary or a baby, the gift elf strikes, delivering chocolates, movie passes and other presents. Barham said this recognition is as much for spouses as for employees; by demonstrating it appreciates an employees family, Talk2 hopes to convey that personal growth is as important as the bottom line. "People say its expensive to do things like this, but Id say we spend no more than a few hundred dollars on each employee per year," Barham said. "For that kind of investment, Id say we get thousands of dollars worth of loyalty and effort."

Other companies have developed similar approaches to achieving balance. Texas Instruments Inc. is one example. At the companys Dallas headquarters, Manager of Work/Life Programs Betty Purkey runs a resource and referral service that connects new employees with local services such as child care, housecleaning and financial planning. Purkey also oversees annual seminars and forums on topics such as raising children in working-parent families; managing work and life as a single parent; and curbing drug abuse problems brought about, in part, by work-related stress. "We see all of these features as timesavers for [employees] and productivity savers for [us]," Purkey said. "People feel less stressed if they know they have resources like these, and when theyre less stressed, theyre more productive."

While such features are undeniably successful in reducing work-related stress, some experts warn that many are worthless without proper attention to scheduling time out of the office. Even Talk2s CEO concept, they say, is ineffective if employees are still expected to work 18-hour days. How, then, do employees achieve a balance between work and life? Raj Kapur, vice president and general manager of the Center for Project Management, in San Ramon, Calif., said that perhaps the easiest solution is simply to draw lines.

"Sometimes, the best way to balance is to separate," Kapur said. "Its important for employers to offer people opportunities to build their lives around work. But employees need to remember that its just as important to build work around their lives as well."