Creating a Family-Friendly Workplace

With some creativity even the smallest pet business can implement family-friendly work policies that help attract—and keep—loyal employees.

Attracting and keeping good employees is a struggle for many small retail stores. So given the expense of traditional benefits like paid vacation time and health care coverage, small pet stores and product manufacturers are turning to family-friendly workplace policies to keep employees happy, productive and on the payroll.

Flexible scheduling, telecommuting and other employment practices that address work-life balance already have become standard in some large companies. Now to stay competitive, small companies are figuring out ways to tailor these practices to their specific needs.

“These policies are necessities in today’s business climate,” said George Whalin, CEO of San Diego-based Retail Management Consultants. Whalin has been offering advice to retailers for 21 years. “Family-friendly workplace policies help keep and attract employees. That’s one of the biggest challenges that all retail businesses face.”

Whether they help employees balance work with children, elderly parents or furry friends, family-friendly benefits go a long way to reducing employee stress, increasing productivity and cutting down on staff turnover. But these decisions should never be made at the expense of the bottom line.

“You still have to run your business like a business,” said Daniel Butler, vice president of merchandising and retail operations for the Washington-based National Retail Federation. “You don’t need to be your employees’ friend but a good manager.”

Family friendly benefits run the gamut from pricey to virtually free, and many are very easy to implement.  With some creativity and an eye for both business and employee needs, it’s possible for even the smallest pet business to implement family-friendly work policies.

Pet Age

Set the mood

Perhaps the simplest way to become family friendly is through the workplace “vibe.” In the Doghouse, a pet health food store and boutique in Philadelphia, has an “embracing, warm, fuzzy kind of atmosphere,” said co-owner Lisa Pomerantz. She owns the store with her partner, Megan Scott, and another couple, Jenna and Brian Williams.

“We pride ourselves on the fact that we’re a neighborhood haunt, where people can get the ‘In the Doghouse’ experience,” she said.

Because they’ve set the stage as a laid back place for customers can hang out, no one minds when Lisa and Megan’s 5-month old daughter, Luka, catches a snooze in one of the dog beds, or when Jenna and Brian’s daughter, Olivia, rearranges the merchandise. “The neighborhood is watching her grow up,” Pomerantz said.

This level of informality is not everyone’s cup of tea. Still, employers can let their staff know that they care about their families. For example, the can help them find needed community services, even if they can’t afford to contract with and employee assistance program.

“A lot of employees will quit their jobs if they lose their child care,” Butler said. Merely assisting an employee in locating childcare can be a lifeline. It’s easy to find these types of resources, Butler said, citing the Society of Human Resource Management Web site as one option. A city’s United Way agency also can provide information about childcare, elder care and other regional resources.

There are other ways to show that you value employees’ families, two-legged and four-legged alike.  For example, Planet Dog, a pet product manufacturer based in Portland, Maine, periodically hosts Kids Romp, Too, Day. For several hours on occasional Friday afternoons, children are invited to come play with the dogs that are ever-present at the company’s headquarters. “It’s a child-focused, family-focused, fun time,” said Catherine Frost, director of marketing and product development.

In addition, Planet Dog and In the Doghouse offer private spaces for nursing employees to pump or nurse. This option can help take the stress off a mom who is returning to work after maternity leave.

Family-friendly policies

Family-friendly workplace policies come in all types and sizes. These are common examples, but the key is to be creative and know what your employees need.

Flexible scheduling: Some employees can only work while the kids are in school. Others need to take occasional time off to care for an elderly parent or attend a special event. Flexible scheduling can relieve the stress of juggling the personal and professional.

Job sharing: This low- to no-cost benefit allows two or more employees to split the responsibilties of one job, which works very well in retail and manufacturing settings. But close attention to schedules is a must.

Telecommuting: Working from home is not an option for employees who staff the store during regular business hours. But for administrative duties—like accounting, marketing or even ordering—technology that permits secure, remote access to business systems and software may be a great option.

Child-care programs: Most small retail businesses can’t pull off on-site child care, but this is where creativity can play a role. Simply offering referrals to trusted childcare facilities is a great way to express a family-friendly workplace. Companies can also enter into relationships with local day-care centers to provide discounts.

Work-life programs:  When employees are stressed, performance will suffer. That’s why it pays to help balance work-life stressors. For example, if an employee can bring their new puppy to work with them, he won’t worry about her at home. If employees are allowed to bring dry cleaning to the store for pickup and delivery, they don’t need to leave work early to run errands.

Offer some give and take

Flexible scheduling is another good starting point for any company that wants to offer family-friendly benefits.

“Most workforces today in retail are primarily part time people,” Whalin said. “Flexibility issues are very important.”

The key is to have a critical mass of part time employees, he added.

Although he can’t provide the standard benefits offered by large corporations, Jason Sanchez has implemented flexible scheduling at his two Chicago pet merchandise stores, Pet Stuff.  “Mostly I try to be flexible with my employee schedules,” he said. Employees can take time off when they need it, which is not always easy on him.

The payoff is in staff turnover. The shortest tenure of his five employees is just over a year. “For retail, I think that’s pretty good,” Sanchez said. “If we weren’t as flexible, they probably wouldn’t want to work here.”

But whether or not part time employees are the backbone of the workforce, flexible scheduling represents a low-cost way of being family-friendly.

For example, in January, Planet Dog implemented Empower Hours. “It’s for people who have families and for people who have dogs as their families,” said Frost.

The idea is simple. If an employee needs to take time off to attend their child’s basketball game or take Fido to the vet, they can—as long as they make up the time by coming in early, staying late or working on the weekends. Plus, employees are in charge of their leave time, which they can use for just about anything—personal illness, caring for a sick child or an aging parent, going on vacation, or staying at home because childcare fell through.

“The vacation policy is based on trust,” Frost said. “It’s a fairly loose system. It’s not corporatized in any way.”

As far as Frost is concerned, the big benefit is productivity. “This policy allows employees to take the stress out of having to juggle their schedule,” she said. “The less stress people have, the more they have to offer their job.”

Frost also allows some employees to telecommute. “As long as they have a computer and their work is computer based, they can work from home,” Frost said. “In general, we do keep regular business hours, but we make it easier for people to take time off.”

Employees of 2 Hound Design (Indian Trail, N.C.) also are given great latitude in creating their schedules. Two employees work when their children are in school. Others work in the evening and at night. “My employees have a set number of hours to work each week, and they can work them whenever they want,” said owner Alisha Navaro. “The trick is to keep the work flowing.”

This is particularly challenging for a design and manufacturing company like 2 Hounds Design, where production must run on a tight schedule, following specific steps. “It can be very frustrating at times, but over all I think the level of happiness of my employees and their loyalty makes it worth it,” Navaro said. “This is a benefit that I can offer that bigger companies can’t. Plus, along with my employees, I also work a flexible schedule.”

Washington takes action

In May, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) introduced the Family-Friendly Workplace Act to the House of Representatives to allow private sector employers to offer compensatory time rather than overtime to employees.

“Time is one of our most precious resources.  We all want more of it and yet we only have 24 hours in a day.  That means we have to figure out how to work a full day, run errands, pack lunches, make dinner and spend quality time with our kids, spouse or elderly parent,” McMorris Rodgers said. “Giving employees more flexibility in their workweek is key to increasing retention as well as attracting great employees that will help increase our country’s competitiveness.”

Employees would not be required to take comp time but would have that option.

Fast Fact

Nearly 6 out of 10 business professionals consider a better work-life balance a top priority. – Source: Inc. survey, December 2007

Fast Fact

71% of American workers value a flexible, family-friendly workplace. – Source: Center for State and Local Government Excellence poll, December 2007

Everyone join in!

Unfortunately one land mine of family-friendly workplace policies lies in fairness. Employees without children may feel that they’re pulling more weight, as their coworkers take off time to attend soccer games or take their children to the doctor. And non-traditional families may feel left out if similar benefits are not offered to them.

“You have to have really strict and consistent guidelines,” Butler said. “It’s very important from a management standpoint that you’re consistent and fair to all employees.”

For example, a company should offer flexible scheduling to all employees, not just parents or people caring for aging relatives. Businesses that offer maternity leave may do the same for new fathers. And including domestic partners in a company’s bereavement leave program is a low-cost way to support employees who have same-sex partners.

Everyone at In the Doghouse has had time off to be with family. Pomerantz and her partner Megan took maternity leave after their daughter was born. Their business partners traveled to Guatemala to adopt Olivia. And their employee, Bernadette, took paid bereavement time when her sister died.

In the end, family-friendly workplace policies that are designed for all sorts of families can be an invaluable tool for employee recruitment and retention. They depend on good planning and a certain level of trust, however. That’s a risk for some managers and some businesses, but the payoff can be great.

“As a manager, if I took care of my employees, they took care of me,” Butler said. “Employees will stick with people they have a good feeling about.”

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