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Family-friendly corporations. They help balance demands of home and work

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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.''

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