Work/life balance: What is it worth?

Employees aren't the only ones who get something out of flexibility in work schedules - companies do, too

A young programmer approached Mary Finlay with a request: After just a year on the job, he wanted to work four 10-hour days so he could have every Friday off, a schedule that would allow him to play Thursday night gigs with his rock band without worrying about the next day's work.

Many IT executives would say no, but Finlay, deputy CIO at Partners HealthCare System in Boston, OK'd the plan. "He was smart and talented, and we wanted to keep him," she explains.

Her decision paid off: He stayed with Partners for nearly a decade.

As Finlay's story shows, employees aren't the only ones who get something out of flexibility in work schedules. Companies do, too. Actual ROI figures are hard to come by, but executives can point to tangible returns, from good retention rates to more complete disaster recovery plans. They say the bottom line is this: By giving employees flexibility, a company gets a better, more committed workforce that can help keep it up and running, even during natural or man-made catastrophes. And that has a real dollar value.

Good business

"Study after study shows that it is extremely cost-effective and very good business to provide flexibility to your employees," says Barbara Wankoff, national director of workplace solutions at KPMG, an audit, tax and business advisory firm in New York. "Employee morale, employee productivity, retention, historical knowledge -- all of those things improve when people feel they have more control over when, where and how they work."

Wankoff says KPMG workers can opt for flextime schedules -- in which they work nontraditional hours -- or a compressed workweek, putting in their 40 hours in fewer than five days. They can telecommute from home or a KPMG facility that's more convenient than their assigned office. Or they can cut back on certain duties and work fewer hours.

Like many companies, KPMG has not calculated a return on investment for these programs, but Wankoff says there's no doubt that the firm benefits. She cites Norma Jean Dembinski, an associate director in IT. Dembinski has worked at KPMG for five years and in IT for nearly 30 years, holding positions ranging from programmer to vice president of information systems.

Dembinski is a valued employee, so her boss wasn't too happy earlier this year when she heard that she was thinking of quitting. Dembinski, who works in the Montvale, New Jersey, office, was getting married and moving to Connecticut. She told her boss that the 64-mile one-way commute would be too taxing. Her boss asked if they could work something out.

So Dembinski now works from home three days a week and commutes to the office the other two. She says she probably would have quit if she hadn't been able to achieve that balance.

If that had happened, Wankoff says, the company would have paid for it. Based on standard human resources industry numbers, she figures that it costs 150 percent of an employee's salary just to find a replacement. That includes the costs of advertising the position and training the new hire, as well as the time managers spend reviewing candidates. It doesn't include the new person's salary.

There are also intangible costs associated with losing someone who has an understanding of the business that comes only with tenure, Wankoff adds.

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