Work-life: Better working through living

Want to recruit better employees, boost productivity and save money? Make life easier for your workers.

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. Today there are on-site gyms, massages, concierge services and even rules about after-hours e-mail so people don’t feel tied to their BlackBerry.

Even though technology tethers 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. “About 70% of my people work from home most of the time,” he says. (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.

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

The staff at Edelman, a privately held global PR firm that employs 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?'” says Diane Pellegrino, vice-president of human resources for Edelman Canada. Edelman lets new parents work three days a week. 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. And when it comes to life in the mobile workplace, corporate culture discourages e-mails between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. “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 “improves morale, reduces absenteeism and increases productivity,” she says.

Like most companies offering perks, GlaxoSmithKline’s Canadian division mandates a yearly charity day in which staff get paid to volunteer with an organization of their choice. The company also 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 take extended leaves for personal time, and a concierge service can help with personal errands. But the company’s flagship perk is “mass career customization,” a program 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, without hurting the chance of promotion in the future. “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.”

This how-can-we-make-you-happy mentality will become more prevalent among employers as the boomers retire and skilled labour becomes scarce. 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.”