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Creating a supportive culture

Creating a supportive culture

No longer just a glib, feel-good piece of advertising hype, the phrase, “employees are our most important asset,” is beginning to have a nice ring to it – a ring of authenticity. It’s a good time for a new work-life strategy.

A study of executives by The Conference Board last year found talent is now seen as critical to success and its management integral to all aspects of the business. And one after another, futurists are saying that companies must be sure their organization has an “employer of choice” position, meaning they’re respected as one of the best companies in their industry. It will be the only way to survive, they say, during the approaching labor shortage.

An invitation to create a flexible, supportive work environment

True or not, the predictions are an invitation to create a strategy for a flexible, supportive work environment, one that will be comprehensive and lasting, that will transform your culture and serve the needs of both employee and employer. There’s no one-size-fits-all plan to ensure success; any effort must be tailored to a company’s needs and culture. But we believe there are steps that will increase the chances of success.

Be clear about management’s goals

Even if you’ve been handed a directive from top management to work toward the transformation of your culture and create a work-life effort, it’s wise to invest time, energy and research into building a solid base of support for your efforts. In order to do so, you will have to link them to the company’s goals. Take the time to interview leaders in every area of the company to get clear about their goals and what they believe it will take from the workforce to achieve them. Do they believe the current level of talent is sufficient? Do they see employees as fully engaged and willing to go the extra mile? What do they think could be done to increase that level of engagement? What’s being done currently and how do they think it’s working? What would they need to know in order to approve new budget items, programs and practices? Most important, what’s keeping them up at night?

Create a task force

A representative task force will help solicit buy-in, add credibility to your recommendations, divide the work and give more people a sense of responsibility for the outcome. We suggest keeping it to 12, including some people with influence (research skills will be helpful) and making sure unions are represented as well as management and non-management employees. Their job: devise questions and participate in management interviews, help create and administer an employee survey, run employee focus groups, benchmark, explore community resources, analyze data, determine needs and solutions, put together a business case and create recommendations.


It’s a good time to be collecting information about best practices. It can be as easy as digging out the October issue of Working Mother magazine at the library or downloading our 26-page report, “Best Practices, 2003/2004.” A Google search using the keywords “best practices work-life” or “best companies to work for” produces – literally – several million opportunities for research. Your management will want to know what those in your own industry are doing, particularly those companies seen as competitive for both customers and talent, and the information will be an important part of the business case.

Analyze current internal conditions

Ask human resource staff if they believe your organization’s policies treat employees as responsible, trusted adults. Which programs are and are not fulfilling expectations? Is the goal simply to cut costs or to recruit, retain and motivate employees? What would they like to see done differently? An employee survey will determine what’s keeping employees from being fully committed and engaged, and what would make a difference. It can explore sources of stress and distraction from work, level of commitment and engagement, awareness of and alignment with the mission, supervisory relationships, awareness, use and satisfaction with current offerings, and the need for future offerings. Results can be cross-tabulated so as to determine the experience of employees who are highly committed and engaged, and compare them with those who are not.

Focus groups for managers can be mutually educational, not only exploring what may be keeping them from accomplishing their organization’s goals, but focusing their attention on what the company could do to make its employees more loyal and committed. Employee groups can answer the same question from their perspective, and consider what would motivate them to put themselves out for the organization.

Explore resources, analyze data

Use the task force to investigate community resources (or national and international resources if your organization has global employees) and establish connections with those that may be able to help your workforce with everyday issues. Build a “resource bank” of services that can be valuable both in the creation and implementation of your recommendations. Then make a list of the goals you’ve gathered from senior leaders, begin to isolate the issues and needs that have emerged from your study, and list them. Now look at each need and decide whether its presence could be impeding your company’s progress toward any of its goals, or if alleviating that need could hasten progress.

Brainstorm solutions

Then brainstorm solutions, using your benchmarking data for suggestions. Is supervision inconsistently supportive? Suggest manager training, regular employee assessment of manager supportiveness, performance evaluations that include the results, and rewards for success. Is a lack of backup childcare causing absenteeism? Company-wide implementation of emergency telecommuting is one low-cost solution and a subsidized in-home backup care pro-gram is another, with a proven payoff. Is work over-load a problem? Work redesign may be the solution. Seminars on time and stress management may help, along with serious implementation of flexible work arrangements. Other possibilities: more health and wellness initiatives; financial and retirement counseling; mentoring, dependent care resource and referral; services of a geriatric care manager.

Link recommendations to goals, concerns

In your final report, stress the link between the data gathered, including senior management goals and concerns, and your recommendations. You might create a long-term and short-term plan, including the “slam-dunks” in the short-term plan and the more drastic measures to be implemented gradually, after some management training and preparation. Suggest a pilot project for anything that may seem too radical or threatening. You can treat it as an experiment, control the size, set goals and regularly monitor and report progress. If the program isn’t cost-effective, doesn’t fulfill its goals or simply isn’t liked by a majority of those involved, it can be tweaked or discarded.

Presenting recommendations

Meet with as many senior leaders as you can gather together, and involve the entire task force, if possible, empowering each member to answer specific questions. Learn about your audience and tailor your presentation to what has worked with them in the past. Offer concrete facts about goals, solutions, proof, dollars and productivity; use visual aids, but rehearse with a non-presenter who will handle the machinery. Remember, these are human beings; compliment them on the positives that emerged from your study. You’re a salesperson with a remarkable product: “Employer of choice” status, a workplace that will foster loyalty, commitment, engagement, focus and even creativity, and timing that couldn’t be better.

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