Juggling the demands of work and family has been an issue in the workplace for many years, and more and more companies, increasingly sensitive to this, are allowing workers to take time off to attend important functions like school meetings as well as more casual events like kids’ softball games and recitals. Most companies are becoming more understanding when a parent needs to leave to attend to the needs of a sick child; additionally, unpaid family leave has become more common, and indeed many workers are protected by the federal Family Leave Act. Flexible work schedules have allowed working parents to better meet the demands of family life while continuing to deal with the responsibilities of work.
This increased flexibility has not been without problems, however. For every parent sitting in the bleachers enjoying a Little League game, there’s the possibility of another worker staying late to finish up the parent’s work. Flexible work schedules which don’t take into account the need to coordinate with on-site workers can lead to inefficiency and resentment from workers whose own responsibilities are made more difficult. And benefit packages which offer expensive family health care coverage and child-care subsidies while handling benefits for single workers on the cheap can end up making the single workers feeling overworked, undercompensated, and unappreciated.
A thoughtfully considered policy which takes into account the personal needs of all of a company’s workers, as these needs impact the work environment, can go a long way toward avoiding workplace conflict. Discussing each potential situation and its implications before it arises can help management clarify its own position on employee relations and shape policies which make all employees feel valued and justly treated.
For instance, what is your company practice on taking personal time during the course of a day? If the type of work allows, can a worker leave early occasionally for a personal commitment, or is the practice frowned upon? Does your company make a distinction between necessary events such as doctor’s appointments and other events?
If this practice is allowed, does a pattern exist where certain workers use this privilege on a regular basis while others cannot? If a worker leaves early, is it with the understanding that the individual’s responsibilities will be completed before he or she leaves, or will another worker pick up the slack? Do parents with family obligations get criticized for leaving early? Conversely, do they get to leave at the end of the day without question while others are expected to work overtime? Do workers without family responsibilities get to take the same advantage of this personal time policy, or is it restricted to workers with families?
If a worker ends up taking on extra work on a regular basis because of another worker’s personal obligations, does he or she get rewarded for the extra effort, or is it just expected? Does the worker have the right to say “no” to working overtime for another worker, or will it jeopardize his or her standing with the company?
Flexible work schedules can be a boon to parents trying to balance work and family responsibilities; but make sure, if you allow these arrangements, that they are available to all. A single worker may not have children to attend to, but may have responsibilities or personal goals, unknown to you, that he or she wants to pursue. While personal considerations can certainly be taken into account while deciding who gets to opt for a flexible schedule, if parents consistently succeed in making special work arrangements while those without family responsibilities do not, you may be guilty of discriminating against your solo employees. If you do allow flexible work schedules, make sure that workers have the opportunity to interface with each other so that the workplace functions smoothly.
Benefit packages are a hot topic right now, and with the increasing cost of providing benefits there is bound to be tremendous change in future years. Traditionally, though, companies have offered health insurance for both single and married employees, and have spent more on married employees and those with children than on single employees. Other benefits have included pensions which are inheritable for married employees but not for singles, child care benefits, and other family-friendly perquisites. In recent years the emphasis on family-oriented benefits has been called into question as unfair to single workers who may provide as much value to the company as married workers but who don’t receive the same value in benefits. Many companies have gone to a “cafeteria” package, where employees are allowed to choose from a menu of benefits; a head of household may opt for full health coverage for his or her family, for instance, while a single individual may choose individual health benefits plus membership in a health club. This cafeteria style allows a company to even out the dollar outlay for its workers and provide benefits in a way which is meaningful to each employee.
Extended leave, paid or unpaid, can make a big impact on a workforce. While most workers can adapt to someone being missing for a week or two, expecting people to take on additional job responsibilities over the period of six months or even a year can take its toll. Where a worker is expected to be gone for a long period of time, it’s smart to consider hiring a temp to cover the missing individual’s job.
Large organizations are for the most part covered by the Family Leave Act, but workers in smaller companies are not. If your company wants to allow extended leave, for what reasons will you allow this? Parental leave – both for pregnant women and for husbands who may opt to be the main caregiver – is the most common reason for requesting leave, but taking time off to care for a sick spouse or child, or for an elderly parent, are also common. While many workers won’t need parental leave, most face dealing with an elderly parent eventually.
You may want to extend the personal leave policy for other reasons – for instance, so a worker can pursue an advanced degree at a college. This policy, particularly if the worker’s studies are job-related, will probably accrue benefits for the company in the long run. Another reason for extended leave could be so the worker could participate in foreign travel. As long as the parameters are the same as for more traditional personal leave requests, providing this type of flexibility for a valued employee may help keep this employee on your staff for many years.
Presenting a thoughtful, carefully structured policy which shows consideration for all of your employees, whatever their personal status, will go a long way toward making your workers feel valued; and valued employees will be much more likely to adapt gracefully and with support and concern for fellow employees when personal situations arise. A supportive, cohesive work force which looks after all its members will be more productive, much happier, and more long-term than a group of people who feel they need to protect their own interests from coworkers whom they see as rivals for their company’s attention and concern.
Aldene Fredenburg is a freelance writer living in southwestern New Hampshire. She has written numerous articles for local and regional newspapers and for a number of Internet websites, including Tips and Topics. She expresses her opinions periodically on her blog, http://beyondagendas.blogspot.com She may be reached at [email protected]