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March 10, 2009

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As group leader of human resources for Lancaster Labs, Margaret Stoltzfus faces the same challenges each day that you do. Two of the primary ones are hiring and retention. "In the scientific field," she says, as in technology, "it's difficult to hire and retain." This is true "not only in the specialized positions, but even for entry-level talent." The problem is compounded because of very low unemployment rates-around 2 percent in her area of Pennsylvania. "You have to be creative," Stoltzfus says, and for Lancaster Labs, one creative solution is to offer employees flexibility.

While they do have a formal job-sharing program, most employees opt for a less formal alternative. "We have a lot of people who do job sharing through part-time positions," says Stoltzfus. She explains that the company has many jobs that could be performed by one 40-hour-per-week person that are being handled by two or three people, each working fewer hours. The flexibility extends to off-site work, too. One example is a public relations staffer who, upon becoming a parent, wanted to cut her hours from 40 per week to 30. She also wanted to work part of the time from her home. "It works for her position," says Stoltzfus. "She's in the office a couple of days a week, and she works two half-days from home. In that case, she maintained a lot of what she was doing, so it didn't require an additional staff person. In a lot of cases it does."

What About Benefits? The new parent in this example probably wants to maintain her benefits, but is now working less than 40 hours per week, the traditional number for full benefits. "Our definition of 'full time' is anybody who works 30 or more hours per week," explains Stoltzfus. So 30-hour employees "get all their benefits. They get health insurance, vacation, life insurance, holiday pay, paid absence, all of the same benefits as a 40-hour-a-week person. The only difference they'll see is [that] a 30-hour-a-week person will get six-hour vacation days instead of eight-hour vacation days. The paid time off is prorated."

Temporary Flexibility The benefit to the employees of this kind of flexibility is obvious. But what about the company? "Retention is the key thing," says Stoltzfus. "The labor market is very tight, so the amount of time you spend trying to find someone who's qualified, and then training ? We'd much rather hang on to those good employees." She also points out that employees often have temporary situations in their lives during which they need flexibility. If your company won't offer that, another one might. "When the children are young, [employees] need to work fewer hours," she continues. "As the children grow up, they're in school; now the employee can work more." This type of program positions a company to earn loyalty from employees. "If you're flexible with them, if you meet their needs, they're willing to take care of you when you need it. When it's crunch time, we find people work really hard to adjust their schedules to meet the demands. They're willing to do that because we took care of them." ~

Open Communication Means 'No Surprises'

According to Lancaster Labs' benefits consultant, Ken Stoudt of Stoudt Advisors, the loyalty is simply a bi-product of the corporate commitment to valued employees. "It's very clear," he says, "in their mission, and where they are as a company. Opening up, listening, and then reacting." When a change is made in the benefits menu, Stoudt says, everyone generally knows the reaction will be positive. They survey employees about their benefits frequently-almost every year-and react to their suggestions. "By the time we go out to employees to communicate changes, we pretty well know what the results are going to be. There are no surprises," he says, because they've done their homework up-front.

Employees Make It Work

But what if a job or department just doesn't lend itself to flexibility? "Generally," says Stoltzfus, "the employees find a way to make it work." If an employee's needs cannot be accommodated in a particular job or department, employees are encouraged to apply for a job in a different area of the company. That way, she says, "we still keep them here." Flexibility strikes again.

The long and short of it, according to Stoltzfus, is the employer/employee relationship and building that mutual trust and respect. "I know I feel that way," she says. "The company bends over backwards for me, and I'm going to do the same thing." That's what an employer likes to hear.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues
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