Think About It: OIWC asks, is it time to think outside the product closet and casual Fridays for employee benefits?

When it comes to attracting and retaining the best talent, product discounts and a casual work environment are no longer enough.
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When it comes to attracting and retaining the best talent, product discounts and a casual work environment are no longer enough.

As roads become more congested and commute times lengthen, concerns about productivity and less time for family are rising. The Outdoor Industries Women's Coalition (OIWC) conducted an industry-wide survey on women's views regarding career opportunity, compensation and benefits, which will be released at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market at the end of January.

It revealed that when it comes to intangible benefits in the workplace, 100 percent of women want an employer that fosters a sensible work/life balance among its workforce. However, only 53 percent of women were satisfied with the job their employer was doing in this regard.

But work/life balance is not solely a female concern, nor the only reason for companies to consider implementing a formal telecommute policy. Most outdoor companies have some kind of commitment to environmental stewardship, but what about the carbon emissions and road congestion caused by employees driving back-and-forth to work every day?

Company concerns about telecommuting usually have to do with productivity -- are these staff members hitting the trails or sitting around watching Oprah? How crazy is it going to be to coordinate meetings with all these different schedules? What happens to the corporate culture when we're not all together?

REI, which has launched one of the more progressive flexible policies in the industry, has worked through the challenges and found the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. In October 2007, the company rolled out its Custom Work Environment (CWE) program to 350 employees in merchandising, IT and human resources, as part of its commitment to foster both environmental stewardship and work/life balance.

"This came from the top down," said Dennis Loney, who specializes in "employment practices" for the company. "We weren't determining if we would move forward, but rather how to ensure success."

The three pilot divisions were determined by manager interest, as both managers and team members were instrumental in shaping how the policy would best work for their departments, down to the individual jobs. "We provided a checklist of options to both managers and employees," Loney said, "and let them work together to design their own solution, understanding that the work had to come first."

Not every job is appropriate, and not every employee is interested. "Many employees really like the common purpose, activity and sense of stewardship they get by being on campus," said Loney, referring to focus group results with employees under 30 years old, who, earlier in their careers, want both visibility and connection.

The process has also provided an opportunity for increased communication and retention. An employee who worked in a position that wasn't a fit for the program was promoted to a job that allowed for flexibility.

Not surprisingly, the policy is very popular with parents. Kari Swindle, an inventory analyst who has been with the company for 10 years, began telecommuting on Thursdays last January. Key benefits for her are spending more time with her school-age daughters and saving money on before-school daycare. However, she is not always able to take advantage of the option due to meetings and says camaraderie has diminished some. "Fewer people are attending celebrations because the event falls on their telecommute day," Swindle said.

Tad Summersett, a project manager and father, appreciates the ability to focus on certain projects without interruption and time saved commuting. Flexibility on both sides is key. "Missing contact time with your team can be an issue, and you need to be accessible via different communication vehicles for immediate questions and emergencies," he said. "Also, once you make the decision to do work out of your home, it starts to invade your life a little… you find yourself checking emails at 9 p.m. on a Sunday."

Both Swindle and Summersett report they are more satisfied with their jobs and quality of life since beginning to telecommute.

By the end of the year, REI will have rolled out the CWE program across the majority of the company's Kent, Wash., campus. Loney -- who works a 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. schedule and telecommutes two days a week, reducing time on the Interstate by 70 percent -- said companies of any size can implement their own program, but cautions against simply adopting someone else's solution.

"It really needs to be a fit for your culture and what you want to accomplish," he noted, and pointed to the Society of Human Resource Management as a great place to start. For a $160 annual membership fee, companies can access a wealth of information, including sample tools and forms, to begin developing their own program.

Less than $200 to begin reducing carbon emissions and increasing employee satisfaction? Sounds like a bargain.

This monthly column, a partnership between OIWC and SNEWS®, aims to address the issues that concern women in the industry most -- anything that is controversial, topical or newsworthy relating to women and the outdoors. The goal is to help, educate, inspire and grow. We welcome your ideas, gripes, thoughts and comments. Bring it on. E-mail us at oiwc@snewsnet.com.

Tami Anderson is principal of andHow Marketing, a consultancy specializing in the women's market, and a board member of OIWC -- tami@andhowmarketing.com.

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