Better Working Through Living

How companies are luring staff with new work-life balance perks

AS THE CORPORATE WORKPLACE GETS YOUNGER and more mobile, companies are figuring out that keeping staff happy will require more than simply good pay and vacation time. Increasingly, employers are also ensuring their people are exercised, well-fed, entertained and given ample autonomy – all in the name of work-life balance. Along with flex-time and parental leave, today there’s on-site gyms, massages, concierge services and even rules about after-hours email so people don’t feel tied to their Blackberry. Even though technology can tether us to work like never before, it can also be used to better the work-life balance, says David Clarkson, director of human resources for Cisco Canada. “Telecommuting is the norm here,” he says. “About 70% of my people work from home most of the time.” (As he spoke, Clarkson himself was working from his basement.) This arrangement has done Cisco well. A 2009 internal survey of almost 2,000 employees found telecommuting increased staff productivity and satisfaction, and saved the company $277 million in a year.

Along with cutting office time, Clarkson says Cisco is also reducing excessive travel through video conferencing. By minimizing travel, Clarkson says he’s been able to lure mid- to upper-managers to the company. “People are now saying that less travel important to them,” he says. “They get to watch their children grow up.”

The staff at Edelman, a privately-held global PR firm which staffs 160 people in Canada, is typically young and always sniffing around for the best perks. “For this younger set, it’s not just about salary, it’s about ‘what do you have to offer me? What makes you different from the guy down the street?’ says Diane Pellegrino, vice president of human resources for Edelman Canada. With that in mind, Pellegrino says the company is always adding new benefits to ensure they remain desirable. At Edelman if you are a new parent, you can work three days a week. If it’s your birthday, you get a paid day off. If you want to join a gym or buy a treadmill, the company will give you $400 a year toward health-related costs. Smokers who quit for at least six months can get a $2,000 bonus. There are weekly in-office socials with food and drinks. There’s an on-site massage therapist. And when it comes to life in the mobile workplace, corporate culture discourages emails between 7pm and 7am. “We don’t want employees to feel pressure that they have to be available 24 hours a day,” Pellegrino says. Overall, Edelman’s progressive stance on work-life balance “improves morale, reduces absenteeism and increases productivity,” she says.

Like most companies offering work-life balance perks, GlaxoSmithKline Inc., a Canadian pharmaceutical firm, mandates a yearly charity day in which staff get paid to volunteer with an organization of their choice. To help employees reduce stress and stay healthy, the Toronto office is equipped with a 24-hour gym updated with the latest fitness trends, like kettlebells or the extreme P90X cross-training DVDs. The company also subsidizes “healthy options” at the cafeteria and recently introduced its “Five O’Clock Solution” program, which allows staff to order food to take home so they don’t have to cook for themselves or their families.

At Deloitte Inc. employees get similar benefits. They can make individualized work arrangements, take extended leaves for personal time, while concierge services can help with personal errands. But the company’s flagship perk is “mass career customization,” a flexible career “lattice” that allows people to “dial up” or “dial down” depending on life circumstances, whether they’re fresh out of school or a harried new parent. For the latter, this can mean putting in fewer hours or passing on travel or new projects, but without forfeiting future growth within the company. “Work-life balance is the key to our success,” says Su Grant, Deloitte Canada’s senior manager of recruitment strategy. “It’s how we attract new talent – especially the next generation of talent.”

This how-can-we-make-you-happy mentality will become more prevalent among employers as the boomers retire and skilled labour becomes scarce. Over his long career, Cisco’s David Clarkson has already noticed a shift in employee expectations. “Today as an employer, you almost have to supply references from current employees to verify what it’s really like here. And as the economy improves and there are more jobs, work-life balance will make a huge difference.”