First Tennessee chairman Ralph Horn says his company had a typical buttoned-down approach to banking before shifting their focus to empowering employees. During the early 1990s, company executives were encouraging their employees to get involved in the community, but soon discovered, "we weren't practicing what we were preaching," says Horn. "Internally, we had all these strict rules and regulations for attendance, which hindered workers taking care of personal business on company time." So in 1993, the top executives at First Tennessee set out to reshape their corporate culture, something akin to making a U-turn in a battleship. Horn and his senior staff were convinced that by putting employees first - rather than stockholders - and making their company a great place to work, they'd be better able to tackle nagging problems like employee absenteeism and retention. Making Changes from the Top Down The executive staff met with several thousand employees during 1993, training managers on how to create a flexible work environment, and spreading the word. "Training to change the culture of the company . . . got great buy-in from the majority of our employees," notes Horn. "It showed them that we were serious about it, and it wasn't just some new flavor of the month - we were going to put our money where our mouth was." But it wasn't easy, says Horn, particularly since some new policies were a radical departure from the way the company had traditionally been managed. For example, the adoption of flex-time, which gave employees more control over their work hours. "People were afraid to try it at first," observes Horn, "because it was so different from the way we'd always operated." But within the first year of its implementation, absenteeism began to drop, as did the use of sick time. Now 90 percent of employees are on flexible schedules. "We saw a lot of companies offering flex-time, but not a lot of companies getting great utilization. Maybe about five to 10 percent of their employees were using it," notes Pat Brown, senior vice president of performance development. "The fact that we have 90-plus percent is really record setting, according to Working Mother magazine. A lot of that comes back to the fact that I think we've made it okay, that's it's not a career-limiting move if you use flextime, [rather] it's a tool and a resource for our employees." Not to mention a recruiting tool as well. Family-friendly benefits like flex-time are what prompted Gwen Clark to come to work for First Tennessee. A corporate trainer, Clark opts to work a compressed 40-hour week, freeing up Fridays to spend time with her two children. "My husband loves it because I come home happy from work, like I'm appreciated, and I'm going someplace with this company," she says. Through their "Prime Time" program, First Tennessee also allows full-time employees to reduce their hours to as low as 20 hours a week while retaining full benefits. Brown says many working mothers take advantage of the program, enabling them to be home with their children after school. Listening to Employees Perhaps most importantly, the company listens to employees to find out what they need to make the balancing act easier. Staff are randomly surveyed once a quarter to determine how they feel about the company and what prevents them from taking care of customers. "We'll pick up family issues there," notes Brown, "workplace stress, new benefits needed. And we have a history of taking action based on what our employees have said." From that feedback has come such benefits as assistance for dependent care, Sniffles 'n' Snuggles, a sick child care program available to workers at a reduced rate and run through Baptist Childcare Services, as well as family counseling support. Staffing specialist Amy Jenkins likens the employee assistance and referral program, to "my own Yellow Pages." Jenkins used the referral service to shop for an MBA program, and found it particularly helpful when she needed ways of reducing stress. These types of work/life benefits not only make good sense managerially, they make good sense economically. Early in the process, bank executives recognized a correlation between employee retention and customer retention. Since becoming more employee-focused, Brown says customer retention has jumped from 92 to 97 percent and employee retention is up from 77 percent to 83 percent. Brown says she typically receives calls from other corporate peers who are looking for the silver bullet when it comes to work/life issues, but she always advises, "Lead with the power of your people." It's that kind of thinking that has put First Tennessee out front. Tracking the Work/Life Trend at Schering-Plough The notion of becoming more "family friendly" began percolating among the nation's largest companies during the early '90s, with the growing demand for quality child care. Executives at Schering-Plough Healthcare Products were aware of the need from their workers as well and decided to make child care a top priority. In 1993, they opened the doors to A Children's Place at Schering-Plough HealthCare Products. It remains one of the only on-site child care centers in the city and one of seven day cares in Memphis accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Nationwide, only 10 percent of U.S. companies offer on- site or near-site child care, according to a survey by Hewitt Associates, a benefits consulting firm. But Pam Criddle believes the creation of the center was simply a logical extension for a company that's long been employee-focused. "There has always been an awareness and emphasis on human resources and what matters in the workplace," notes Criddle, manager of human resources at Schering-Plough. "We constantly evaluate programs we make available to make certain they're still on target and still add value." For Marcia Shea, having child care so near by "was very comforting to me, as a new mother." All three of Shea's children have been cared for at the center (which is subsidized by the company, but also open to the public), and she likens the staff to "extended family." Having just returned from a six-month maternity leave (the company offers up to 28 weeks), Shea says Schering-Plough has been "extremely supportive" throughout her pregnancies. But Shea also did her part to ensure smooth transitions. "I provided the company with a comprehensive plan that outlined who was going to do my job while I was away," points out Shea, the director of customer support. When working mothers return to work, the company also allows them to phase back if needed, something Shea took advantage of with her second child. "We learned several years ago that it's not the money that's keeping people here, it's the day care center, the other things that create the work/life balance that motivates them," says senior communications specialist Gina Kamler. Like First Tennessee, Schering-Plough has a corporate task force that discusses issues like work/life policies and employee retention on a regular basis to stay abreast of what's going on with employees. The company offers up to $3,000 in adoption assistance, an employee assistance program, and emphasizes wellness prevention with programs coordinated by a full-time nurse practitioner and an R.N. Included are on-site mammography and prostrate screenings, as well as a lactation program, complete with breast pumps, storage facilities for milk, and a private room for nursing mothers. Criddle says her department targets expectant mothers to make sure they know such benefits exist before going out on maternity. "A company can duplicate anything we have," says Criddle. "But the one thing they can't duplicate are human resources and our corporate values. So it's really important that we stay focused on that - that employees recognize not only that the company values them but respects them." [This story was first published in Memphis Parent]

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