At Children's Creative Learning Centers child care centers, we think quite a lot about company culture, our own and those of our clients. When discussing the ways our centers can reflect the values of the companies they reside within, we help clients uncover and distill the elements that define them as an organization and discover those they want to pass along to their children. In the larger world of work-life and family-friendly programs, we have found that company culture is one of the main factors that determines the success of these programs and that, in turn, work-life programs can be a tool for a real cultural revolution.

Work-life programs are only as successful as company cultures allow them to be. "To change an organization's culture, you have to really examine every aspect of that culture which can influence the outcomes you wish to affect," says Krista Brockwood, Ph.D., from the Sloan Work and Family Research Network. "For instance, reward systems to incentivize employees may actually be counter to the work-life cultural norm you are attempting to create. Rather than fostering an environment in which everyone supports one another, you may be creating an environment of competition and protection of resources rather than sharing and community."

By contrast, when work-life integration is considered a strategic initiative of the business (a bottom-line issue), innovation, rather than caution, is likely to define work-life programs, and that innovation can have prodigious impact on corporate culture. At AOL, the employee-first culture has fostered customized programs and policies that fit the needs and subcultures of each campus and location. While a strong CEO sets and reinforces overarching values, including trust, fun and flexibility, each location is free to craft programs to best fit the needs of employees.

At the Virginia campus, many employees have young children, and the onsite child development center has been helping employees feel supported and invested in for 10 years. Knowing that such a targeted benefit can alienate employees not in the same stage of life, AOL listens to employee feedback in the design of alternative programs to meet all of their needs, including flexible work time.

By providing employees a sense of autonomy and the ability to plan, structure and control work schedules, as well as influencing how employees perform their jobs, you can see increases in job satisfaction and productivity. In the long run, the program communicated trust in their employees, deepened the relationship between employees and managers, and reinforced the cultural changes the company was looking to undertake - changes that spilled over into other aspects of company life not directly related to the time-off policy. Based on the culture of trust and responsibility, and the close working relationship between management layers, the company found it was fielding more innovative ideas and working teams were more cohesive.

"AOL's benefits have built a culture of trust among employees and managers - employees feel empowered to use flex time when necessary to look after their personal lives," says Gillian Pon, vice president of total rewards and organization effectiveness at AOL. "Families who use AOL's onsite child care offering feel less guilty about working hard because they are able to see their kids throughout the day - this has increased employee loyalty and retention, and has built AOL's reputation to attract new talent."

Even if your company is not looking to make a dramatic change in policy, the most vital elements in successful benefit programs are a deep and clear company-cultural understanding and designing programs that reinforce the culture you want or complement the one you say you have. Guidelines and policies shape company culture as much as their successes are influenced by it.

Study your company's current culture. Listen to coffee station conversations. Note the areas of effort or anxiety voiced by employees and managers. Use these cues to deepen your understanding and begin your own cultural revolution.





"Best Companies" set the benefits bar high

Fortune magazine's annual list of "Best Companies to Work For" is out, honoring "dream" employers that offer "fat paychecks, sweet perks, fun colleagues, and over 70,000 jobs ready to be filled."

From the benefits side, here's what you need to do to emulate or compete with this year's winners:

* Pay for health care. Fourteen companies on this year's list got exceptional marks for paying 100% of their employees' health care premiums. That's just over 10% of all companies on the list.

* Provide child care. Dream employers were more generous with child care help. Nearly a third of the companies on the list offer an onsite child care center. The cost to employees varies widely, with the most generous subsidy being $130/month for employees at Publix Super Market.

*Emphasize work-life balance. Companies deemed the best for work-life balance are those that walk the talk and encourage employees to balance their focus on and off the job. Leading the list in this category is SAS Institute in Cary, N.C., which supports employees with subsidized Montessori child care, unlimited sick time, intramural sports leagues and a free health care center, among other benefits.

* Send employees on sabbaticals. Nearly a quarter of the companies on this year's list offer fully paid sabbaticals.

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