Work-life balance: European Institute for Social Capital offers company certification

Achieving work-life balance is a tough challenge, but certification for company programs may help.

A certification by the European Institute of Social Capital was the centerpiece of talks at WorldCity’s HR Connections meeting March 8. Executives from Siemens, Novartis and Microsoft discussed how the Institute’s work-life balance certification is helping their operations.

Participants said the program aims not only to make employees happier. It also serves as a competitive advantage for companies, helping to boost employee productivity, hiring and retention.Siemens' Ignacio Ros said in a company of engineers, the approach to work-life balance was well calibrated. PHOTOS: Carlos MillerSiemens’ Ignacio Ros said in a company of engineers, the approach to work-life balance was well calibrated. PHOTOS: Carlos Miller

“We don’t have any problem to attract people now to work with Novartis in Colombia,” Juanita Mendez, who leads human resources for Novartis Latin America Services in her homeland. Employees today are lured by such benefits as flexibility to work from home and free health screenings, she said.

Engineering and tech giant Siemens undertook the certification in Argentina and Uruguay, partly because top managers liked the idea that something as soft as work-life balance could be tallied.

“All our engineers like measurements. They like certifications. They like to have a dash-board to work with,” said Ignacio Ros, human resources manager for Siemens in Argentina and Uruguay.

To become certified, Siemens Argentina-Uruguay set up a team of some 30 “ambassadors” that worked on everything from brainstorming to implementation. The group worked bottom-up, and their brainstorming sessions raised about 100 possibilities, from the practical to zany. “One idea was to go do a nasty job, so we can appreciate what we do,” said Ros, noting the group declined that suggestion.

The ambassadors culled through the ideas and designed a menu of benefits options for employees choose which they want. Reports are generated quarterly and results audited yearly, said Ros.

Microsoft's Maria Ines Calvo talked about the results from the company's efforts in work-life balance programs.Microsoft’s Maria Ines Calvo talked about the results from the company’s efforts in work-life balance programs.At Novartis in Colombia, the certification program instead started top-down. Managers developed programs including one for healthy living that includes free blood pressure tests at work, plus voluntary contests between teams wearing pedometers to see who can rack up more steps at the office.

”If you have to go to another department, don’t take the elevator. Take the steps, so our team can get the points,” colleagues will say to each other at work, said Marcelo Fumasoni, vice president and head of human resources for Latin America and Canada for Novartis Latin America Services. “It’s fun.”

Meeting participants asked about specific programs for women, especially new mothers.

At Microsoft Argentina-Uruguay, the certified program includes a lactation room at the office, part-time work for months after a baby is born and reimbursement for child-care for youngsters, said Maria Ines Calvo, Microsoft’s human resources director for Argentina and Uruguay.

At Siemens Argentina-Uruguay, the certified program features a “soft-landing” for new moms. Each works the equivalent of an hour a day when the baby is one month old, two hours a day when the child is two months old, and so on until the employee returns to full-time work at eight months old, said Ros.

FedEx’s Esperanza Lopez-Virtue makes a point.What about generational differences?, some asked. How does the certification accommodate that?

Today’s youth tend to want more flexibility to work from home and take time off, said Calvo. Microsoft Argentina-Uruguay offers such options as flex-time, a free day on your birthday, leaving early Fridays and entering late Monday in summer months and making up for a national holiday that falls on a weekend with a workday off during the next couple months, she said.

To be sure, the benefits packages are linked to work performance. If employees don’t do the work required, benefits don’t flow easily, participants acknowledged.

So, what are companies doing to lighten workloads?, some participants asked. That includes offering tools to manage e-mail, which can be a major time-killer, or perhaps adding staff and budgets to cut workloads that often require more than eight hours a day to complete.

While managing the load is generally left up to each employee, some executives lead by example and make public their work-life balance programs, said Calvo of Microsoft Argentina-Uruguay. One vice president who has children, for example, has publicized that she does not want to be away from her children more than four nights, wants no weekend travel and aims to minimize meetings after 5:30 p.m.

Discovery's Yvette Latour was among the HR directors talking about work-life balance in Latin America.Discovery’s Yvette Latour was among the HR directors talking about work-life balance in Latin America.To help employees take more ownership of how they work, Lexmark has adopted a novel approach: unlimited vacations, said Rocio Sarabia Gonzalez, HR director of Lexmark International Latin America.

“The first time I read the e-mail, I was in shock. I thought probably, “It’s a mistake,” Sarabia said. Yet Lexmark wants all employees to take at least three weeks off each year, with the only caveat that vacations of two weeks or longer must be scheduled. That could mean taking off a week a month, if work is completed.

So far, Lexmark employees have been taking off just a few days more than they did before the unlimitd vacation policy started: “It’s like having money in the bank. You may not use it, but it reduces your stress,” said Sarabia.

Still, what works for one set of employees or one industry may not fly in another, participants said.

For example, managers may have the flexibility to make their own schedules and work from home, but assembly line or office employees might not, noted Marta Ramirez, regional HR director for the Americas for logistics firm Geodis Wilson USA. She gets up early many days for 6am calls with her Paris headquarters.

That’s why the certification varies widely depending on each business and their culture. Said Carlos Forlenza, a managing director at the European Institute for Social Capital: “Each company is different.”

HR Connections is one of six events series organized by WorldCity to bring together executives on international topics. The HR series is sponsored by the University of Miami School of Business Administration, executive search firm Diversified Search and the European Instiute for Social Capital. The next session is set for May 17.