Balancing Work & Life: Creating a Great Workplace

From smSmallBiz

This is the third in a three-part series on how small employers can focus on work-life programs to recruit and retain the best employees. Read part one and part two .

IT’S EASIER TO attract talent when your business is known for being a great place to work.

Small businesses often find it tough to compete against the big guys, especially when it comes to pay and traditional benefits, such as health insurance and retirement plans. But they do have one distinct competitive advantage: flexibility. Increasingly, small businesses are attracting and retaining talent by offering alternative work schedules and a mix of inexpensive work-life programs, including everything from summer Fridays to pet-friendly offices.

Every year, the Alfred P. Sloan awards honor companies with innovative work environments like these. The 2007 winners include small employers whose unconventional benefits are a departure from the industrial-era workplaces of Corporate America.

Many small employers find that work-life programs not only help them retain quality staff, but also enable them to thrive in uncertain economic times, too. Studies have shown that “dual-centric” employees — that is, staff who are involved with their families and communities, as much as their work — are among the most committed in the office. “A less stressed, a less tired and a less overworked employee is going to make less mistakes, going to be less angry at co-workers, and is going to come to work and be more productive,” says Lois Backon, vice president at Families & Work Institute, a workplace research firm in New York that has co-produced the national Sloan awards since 2005.

The institute recently published ” 2008 Guide to Bold New Ideas for Making Work Work ,” a report highlighting the best practices of award-winning workplaces. Aside from flexible scheduling (discussed in part one ), companies who won Sloan honors are trying additional ways to enhance their workplace, most of which come at a minimal cost. Here are some examples:

Giving employees a way to contribute to their communities. Large companies have long affiliated themselves with charitable causes. But now, a number of smaller employers are encouraging volunteerism, too. For instance, McKinnon-Mulherin, a Salt Lake City communications firm with 14 employees, allows staff members one paid hour each week to volunteer in the community. Other small companies host their own programs. Once a month, Barnes, Dennig, an accounting firm with 90 employees in Cincinnati, hosts “lunch buddies,” a program where staff eat sandwiches with inner-city school children. “Some of the kids will really just talk your ear off,” says Chris Perrino, Barnes, Dennig’s business-development principal. The company, which has been hosting lunch buddies for more than 10 years, says the program gives employees “an opportunity to be more well-rounded people and therefore more well-rounded professionals,” he says. The result? The firm’s retention rate is about 93%, which Barnes, Dennig attributes to its community involvement, as well as its mentoring program and flexible scheduling.

Providing ways for staff to manage stress. Seattle advertising agency Worktank’s 75 employees can blow off some steam in the company lounge equipped with Nintendo Wii gaming consoles and popular games like “Guitar Hero.” And at “Social Friday” office gatherings, they can kick back with food and beverages. “In an industry like ours, it can be high pressure; you can work long hours and you’re here late,” says co-founder Leslie Rugaber. “It’s important we recognize that.” The company also aims to reduce employee stress by allowing flexible start and stop hours. Pet owners can even bring their dogs into work, as long as they’re well-behaved and on a leash.

Letting staff leave early on Fridays. A variety of companies now allow staff to start their weekends early, especially during the summer. For the past three years, Cachet Homes, a Scottsdale, Ariz., home builder with 50 employees, has been rejiggering its normal 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. work hours between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. Mondays through Thursdays, staffers work from 7:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m.; on Fridays, they start at 8 a.m., work though lunch, and leave at 1 p.m. “It’s just a unique way to motivate employees,” says Diane Byrne, Cachet’s vice president of marketing. “We have to make the best use of our time while we are here.” Summer Fridays have been such a popular perk that the company now allows staff to leave at 3 p.m. on Fridays during the month of December.

Paying for tuition, education or skill development. More small employers are giving staff the opportunity to take classes and upgrade their skills. Cooper Roberts Simonsen, an architectural firm with 68 employees in Salt Lake City, picks up the tab for workshops and both graduate and undergraduate-level classes, up to $2,000 a semester. “For a small business, that’s a fairly nice benefit,” says human-resources manager Elizabeth Rontino, who adds that the program has helped attract and keep hard-to-find talent. The company also sponsors annual travel scholarships, that cover up to $2,000 in expenses and provides an additional week of paid time off. Employees submit applications to study architecture in various spots around the world; an executive committee decides if they go. So far, employees have gone to Germany to study intergenerational housing; to Cambridge, England, to study art and architecture; and to Hawaii to study indigenous architecture. Upon their return, they share what they’ve learned at a company luncheon. “We feel it’s a really great way to get broader outlooks on the world,” Rontino says. “It’s not a big expense but it draws a lot of interest.”

Encouraging fitness. Leavitt Group, an insurance company in Boise, Idaho, with 11 employees, shares the cost of gym memberships with employees and recently expanded its wellness program to include a low-cost personal trainer. Staff who are interested (more than half participate) meet individually with the trainer, and each day get an exercise regimen emailed to them. Alyce Hillman, director of operations for Leavitt, recommends similar wellness programs as an inexpensive benefit that can help small businesses retain the best labor in their industry.

For small businesses that want to try flexible scheduling or other work-life programs, Backon of the Families & Work Institute recommends testing ideas via pilot programs. “See if you can get results, and still have the business operating the way you want to work,” she says. The best programs boost the company’s bottom line and “help conquer one of the biggest challenges right now, which is recruiting and retaining talent,” she says.

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“Balancing Work & Life,” a weekly column written by Colleen DeBaise for, advises entrepreneurs on how to better balance their lives. Write to her at . provides news, information, and tools for business professionals and growing businesses. All content provided by SmartMoney is © 2008 SmartMoney®, a Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and Hearst SM Partnership.