RITA WILSON, a vice president at Allstate Insurance Company, likes to think expansively. Instead of seeing the Northbrook, Ill., company as an employer of 55,000 workers, she imagines a group twice that size.
``The people we employ are not the only people we affect,'' Mrs. Wilson explains. ``We affect at least two times that number because of the way the quality of work life affects families.''
Wilson's attitude reflects a new corporate philosophy slowly gaining favor in board rooms across the country: the pro-family workplace. As dual-career couples and women with children make up an increasingly large part of the work force, Wilson and other executives see an inescapable obligation to help employees balance the demands of work and home.
The shift to more inclusive policies is not totally altruistic. A shrinking labor pool, combined with a continuing influx of women into the work force, will make the labor market increasingly competitive in the 1990s, according to United States Department of Labor projections.
Wilson outlines the challenges facing employers in the 1990s. Speaking to a group of 150 policymakers, analysts, and business leaders attending the founding conference of the Institute for American Values she warned, ``It will be foolhardy to think that benefits packages as we know them today, as good and competitive as they are, will be adequate in the future.''
Instead, she says, companies will need to offer perks such as child care, elder care, at-home work, and flexible hours to remain competitive.
Identifying policies that create a ``family-friendly'' workplace is one of the tasks of the new institute, a nonpartisan group founded, according to executive director David Blankenhorn, ``to answer one simple question: How can public and private-sector policies strengthen families?''
That question may be anything but simple. In Congress, a parental-leave bill, guaranteeing unpaid leave for parents of newborn or seriously ill children, appears to be stalled. And in corporations, executive concerns about productivity and cost often prevent serious discussions of policy changes. Too many managers, Wilson finds, continue to view employees as ``a cost to be controlled rather than an asset to be used.''
As one way of countering that attitude, Marie McKee, director of executive personnel planning for Corning Glass, urges employers to think in terms of two kinds of customers: ``internal'' and ``external.''
```Internal' customers - employees - become a very large group of people you must serve,'' she explains.
At Corning, serving ``internal'' customers includes providing on-site child care and offering a child-care referral service. The company is also implementing a ``more aggressive'' part-time work policy to identify part-time jobs and convince managers that this makes good business sense. ``You always get more than part-time work out of people,'' Ms. McKee observes.
In addition, the company has assembled a career and family book for supervisors and employees, outlining family-support policies.
Still, any policy is only as good as the support it receives from management. ``The real story at Corning is a commitment at the top,'' McKee says proudly. ``We have a chairman who is committed to the retention of women.''
But retaining women is only part of the solution. Benefits must include men, McKee adds, and male workers ``must get support from other men for doing more parenting.''
To executives worried about the cost of offering broader-based policies, J. Douglas Phillips, senior director of corporate planning at Merck and Co., offers an example. Merck's child-care leave policy, he says, has resulted in savings.
Mr. Phillips estimates the cost of losing an employee at $50,000. But by permitting a worker to take a six-month child-care leave (cost: $38,000), the company achieves a net improvement of $12,000, he says. ``When you focus on people, profits will follow,'' Phillips comments, quoting the company's founder.
Speaking broadly of ``family-friendly'' benefits, Wilson says, ``The successful companies of the future will respond both to the brainpower and the hearts of their workers.''
Dr. Ethel Klein, professor of political science at Columbia University, puts it another way: ``The family is an institution that is valuable enough to make accommodations for, rather than always asking the family to make the sacrifices.''