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Small Business & Work-Life Balance
By Tema Frank

When Doug Brockelbank's wife Li got a chance to work in China, Doug told his boss that he wanted to go with her. But he didn't want to leave his employer of 3.5 years, energy industry software designer Merak Projects Ltd., nor let his computer programming skills get rusty. Merak feared harming morale, both Doug's and that of his co-workers, if it said no. So they reorganized Doug's job to focus on design features that he could program independently, and from November 1996 to February 1998 he worked from China. He kept in touch with his colleagues in Calgary every few days by e-mail. On the rare occasions when he needed closer communication, they held conference calls.

Two-career couples like Doug and Li are the norm these days. Three-quarters of Canadian workers are also juggling workplace demands with responsibility for children or elderly parents. And even young, single people today are determined to strike a balance between their work and personal lives.

How can small businesses, with tight operating margins and staffing levels that never quite catch up with the workload, help employees meet the conflicting demands of their personal and work lives? Should they even try?

 “You can't afford not to [try], because otherwise you lose talent and opportunities,” insists Nora Spinks, founder of Canadian Work/Family Directions, a Toronto-based firm that helps employers balance the needs of their employees with those of the workplace. As any entrepreneur knows, it takes time and energy to find the right people. Helping employees strike a happy balance between their work and personal lives gives you an edge in both recruiting and keeping the best.

This is especially important in smaller businesses says Spinks, not only because of the operating turmoil they are thrown into when employees leave, but also because of the impact on morale. “In a small organization,” she says, “you kind of live in each other's drawers and desks. You share everything from the flu to the ups and downs of everyone's family life. When somebody leaves a small organization, for whatever reason, there are huge emotional ramifications.”

Dr. Linda Duxbury, of Carleton University, and Dr. Chris Higgins, of the University of Western Ontario, recently studied 65 Canadian manufacturing firms ranging in size from 20 to 99 employees. They found that this closeness, or sense of family, was the biggest factor differentiating small from big businesses in the eyes of their employees. Half thought that was positive, feeling that even though work demands were high, employees were valued, helped each other, and benefited from flexibility. The other half found it stressful. The closeness made them worry about their jobs, fearing that if they didn't devote themselves to work, the company might fold and there would be no work.

For many entrepreneurs, the family feeling is a major motivator in how they treat their employees. Freda Iordanous, co-founder of award-winning Toronto-based clothing designer Freda's Originals, has sacrificed profits to keep employees on in slow times because she feels an emotional commitment to them. During the recession she had to cut her staff from about 65 full-time employees to the 45 she has today. But when one came to collect his last pay cheque with his young son in tow, she couldn't bear to see him unemployed. He was rehired. She doesn't think her decisions can be justified in economic terms, but argues that “It is nice to try to make a life, not just money.”

Yet she admits that her attitude does inspire loyalty, which pays off. When her alterationist of eight years was lured away by the prestige of working for big-name designer Channel, the woman quickly returned to the family fold at Freda's, where she was greeted with open arms and a bouquet of flowers.

Ben Hume, president of Alco Railings, a Langley, B.C.-based manufacturer of railings, patio covers and other aluminum products for the residential market has both philosophical and pragmatic reasons for helping his 40 to 60 employees meet their personal needs.

“The family is a basic part of our social structure. Today's reality is that businesses have to contribute to the well being of that unit, if we want bright, well-adjusted kids.... It's also good business, because you get phenomenal loyalty. The investment gets returned, big time.”

Hume bought Alco Railings 12 years ago when he concluded that his own children would suffer if he kept working in jobs that had him traveling half the year and meant frequent moves for his family.

He's convinced that helping employees balance their work and personal lives gives his company a competitive edge.

“You get more productivity, more creativity, you don't get turnover, ... [and] absenteeism not an issue.” More than anything, says Hume, the benefit comes through in how employees deal with customers and suppliers. Happy employees give good service; stressed employees don't.

Paula Jubinville, founder of Toronto-based Aqueous Advisory Group, which helps entrepreneurs find financing for start-ups or expansions and consults to them in fields such as tax accounting, marketing, and computer technology, believes that enabling work and personal life balance not only helps her firm recruit better consultants, it attracts clients. Aqueous' first corporate marketing brochure featured pictures of the consultants with their children.

“Initially our target market was primarily women, many of whom had left corporate life because they were looking for better balance,” explains Jubinville. “The brochure worked superbly because it showed something people could relate to.” It also gave them the freedom to bring their own children in to meetings rather than canceling if child care arrangements fell through.

Flexibility is often key to helping employees balance their work and personal lives. Small businesses rarely have formal policies on balance issues, but at least until there's a layer of middle management, they don't need them. Brenda Schiedel is the president of  100-employee Coyle and Greer Awards Canada Ltd., a Mossley, Ontario-based manufacturer of awards and promotional items for clients such as Bell Canada, the Bank of Montreal, and Carleton Cards. As her company has grown she has had to infuse her management team with her belief that “people will work a lot better if they don't have a lot of stress at home.... If you can be a little flexible, you get better people, ... [and] they become far more loyal.”

Merak Projects is up to 165 employees, but still keeps things as flexible as possible. The company was founded in 1980 by three friends who wanted to create an informal environment where they'd enjoy working. They've hired others who share that view. Few employee requests are denied. Want to work from home for a few days? No problem. Most productive at night? Okay. Requests for unpaid leave time are granted, if at all possible. Co-founder Adrian Zissos believes that the company benefits from this openness. “You [not only] get greater loyalty, a morale boost, and increased energy, you also get to hear a lot of really good ideas.”

Coyle and Greer asks employees to give as much warning as possible of absences, but allows them to take off whatever time they feel they need. Mind you, since most staff are paid hourly rather than on salary, there's a strong disincentive to taking time off.

The family feeling in small businesses means that most employees will rally around to cover for somebody who is away. Seasonal businesses, such as Schiedel's (which is busiest from April to June), often have trained people who work for them during the busy season available during the rest of the year to fill in on short notice. Some jobs, like book-keeping or computer maintenance, are too specialized for non-experts to step in, so consultant Spinks notes that a growing number of small companies use outside service teams to perform such jobs.

Employers may grumble about maternity leaves, but, unlike illnesses, they offer the joy of time to plan. Many companies prepare by cross-training staff and rethinking processes to find ways to save time. Spinks notes that cross-training not only leaves you less vulnerable to employee absences, it brings new ideas and energy to your workplace. “People learn best by teaching. You get a fresh perspective on your own job when you have to explain it to somebody else, and two heads are better than one.”

Alco Railing brought in a playpen and a rocking chair, and set up a job-sharing arrangement after its accountant, Sharon, had her first child in September 1994. She had worked at Alco since 1990, and didn't want to abandon her career, nor her work on her accounting designation, nor her baby. When she went on maternity leave the company hired Veronica, another mother of a young child, two days a week to handle some of her workload, while the rest was shuffled off to the controller and the marketing department. When Sharon returned, six months later, the company had grown, so Veronica stayed on. Sharon worked from home one day a week while bringing her breast-feeding baby into the office for a few hours on three others. She had a similar arrangement after her second child was born, in December 1996. Each baby came with her to work until it was about a year old: old enough to want out of the playpen and into the computer cords under the desk.

When the workload grew still further, rather than force either woman to work full-time, the company hired Jill, who also wanted to work part-time, starting in April `97. Together, they work just under two full-time equivalent jobs. Sharon focuses on accounts receivable and financial statements, Jill on accounts payable, and Veronica on bank records and administration of the benefits plan. But they are cross-trained so that if a customer or supplier calls, anybody can handle the inquiry. Their days in the office also overlap. Sharon is in on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Friday mornings, and works from home on Tuesdays and Friday afternoons. Veronica is in on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while Jill works Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays.

Making such an arrangement work takes some coordinating effort, but the company benefits by saving recruiting and training costs, while retaining experienced, devoted employees. It also gets access to the skills of three women who it would not have been able to hire or keep had it insisted they work full-time.

Hume acknowledges that it is harder to provide flexibility for production staff. The work can't be done from home, and you can't simply fire up the machines to suit the schedules of every employee. However, some staff  have chosen to work four, ten-hour days instead of the standard five, eight-hour days. One production worker has been exempted from night shifts so that he can care for his mother, who has Alzheimer's disease. Because the company is open with employees in discussing and reaching agreement on anything to do with working conditions, no one has complained.

There are also many little ways in which employers can help employees, by removing needless conflict between their work and home lives. (See sidebar). Merak management, for example, accepts that sometimes children must be taken to medical appointments and that child care arrangements can fall through. It is not uncommon, says Zissos, to have young babies at staff meetings. Several employees keep toys in their offices for children to play with while their parents work. At Freda's, a sewing machine operator with a sickly son was grateful that the company would page her instantly if the baby-sitter called to say the boy was ill, and would let her go home if she was needed. Her previous employer had waited until noon to pass along any personal messages, which left her feeling worried and guilty.

Ultimately, getting and keeping the best employees in this high-stress era boils down to tolerance. Employees will be happier and more productive if they don't have to keep their personal lives hidden. Says Spinks. “What people want first and foremost is respect for the fact that they have a personal life and recognition that it is not always easy or predictable.”

The great strength of small business is creativity, and employers should apply that creativity to their dealings with employees, believes work and family consultant Nora Spinks. During a stressful merger, her firm hired a shiatsu massage therapist to come in to the staff room twice a week and provide a free half-hour treatment to any employee who wanted it. “The cost to the employer was next to nothing,” notes Spinks, “certainly less than the cost of two employees being off sick for a day. But we found that chronic illnesses and absences dropped, people recovered faster from colds and flu, they were sleeping better, and they were able to maintain their sense of humour.”

Her company also put together emergency kits containing the things busy families typically run out of: toilet paper, macaroni and cheese, fresh underwear, and juice boxes for children's lunches.

Other ideas:
lend pagers to employees who are awaiting the birth of a child
assemble information kits for new parents (local social service agencies can help)
set up a stationary bike in the staff room
bring in experts to teach relaxation techniques
replace or supplement coffee machines with spring water, fruit juices or herbal teas
work with other employers to provide services like car pools, child care, and holiday parties
help link employees who have teen-age children who like to babysit with those who have young children
get your industry association to negotiate group rates for services such as employee assistance plans (which help employees with drug or alcohol problems, work-related issues, or family troubles)
send gifts such as movie or video rental passes, restaurant gift certificates, or take-out food vouchers to thank employees' families when your people have been working extra hours.

Copyright Frank Communications, 1999