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U.S. multinationals nurture work-family programs abroad

MAGGIE JACKSON

The Associated Press

At a conference in Tokyo, IBM managers, dismayed to learn of their Japanese employees' hours-long daily commutes, proposed a telecommuting program.

That sounded easy and good, said Maria Ferris, a consultant with IBM's global workforce diversity department who attended the recent meeting.

But then the Japanese told the Americans about the tiny size of most homes and the numbers of elderly parents who live with children. Working from home would be difficult. So instead, IBM is starting a pilot program to lease suburban office space to save commuting time.

Inspired by the growth of the global economy and research showing that good work-family programs save money, U.S. companies are paying much more attention to the juggling that employees face whether they're in Toledo or Taipei. But along the way, they're facing their own cultural balancing acts.

As we branch out into other countries, we need to understand each culture, said Kathy Kane, director of work-life and wellness programs at Motorola Inc. We can never presuppose that we understand a culture in which we haven't lived.

Motorola, a pioneer in the movement to take work-family programs abroad, has built childcare centers in Scotland, Taiwan and South Korea and is constructing its latest in Germany. Employee surveys in South America and Britain show that -- just as in the United States -- eldercare and child care are major concerns.

Understanding the needs of our employees outside the United States is critical to our business, which operates in more than 200 countries, Kane said.

That's what other U.S. multinationals are beginning to discover, said Brad Googins, head of the Center for Corporate Community Relations at Boston College, at a recent work-family conference in Miami.

It's going to be increasingly difficult for a General Motors to talk about work-life just in the United States when their business is more outside the United States than in, he told an audience of 100 that included representatives from Seagram & Sons Inc., Amway Corp. and the World Bank.

Chase Manhattan Corp. was so interested in bringing family-friendly programs to its employees in Britain that it helped persuade WFD, a major U.S. worklife consulting firm, to open its first international office in London last July.

Now WFD helps not only U.S.

employees working in Britain, but British workers who must deal with family problems in their homeland while working in the United States, said Liz Bargh, WFD's chief executive in London.

Recognizing the importance of work-family issues abroad is only the beginning. Myriad complications -- from a reluctance to address the issue to vastly different perceptions of family life and work -- await companies that go global. The work at times demands U.N.-style diplomacy.

When BMW first tried to introduce family-friendly policies in Germany, workers scoffed, We should be making cars, not babies, according to a Boston College report on work-life in Europe. In many countries, balancing work and family is seen as a woman's problem.

In developing a worldwide work-life strategy, IBM faced reluctant local managers who felt American solutions were going to be forced willy-nilly on foreign problems. In response, IBM dropped the term work-life -- which meant little to most foreigners -- and started talking about workplace flexibility and balance.

In their work-life efforts abroad, U.S. companies also must take care to respect existing practices and programs, such as France's network of good public childcare centers or the strong Japanese tradition that the eldest son's wife cares for elderly parents.

To navigate these difficult waters, companies such as Eli Lilly and Co. and Price Waterhouse allow foreign offices full independence. Managers abroad decide what ideas will work or not, although information is shared back and forth.

We're not into reinventing the wheel, said Jeremy Franks, head of human resources for Price Waterhouse in Britain and Northern Ireland. We share good experiences all the time.

Other companies are developing global strategies, while still allowing lots of leeway for programs to vary from country to country.

In Motorola's on-site day-care center outside Taipei, parents are involved in almost every aspect of the center, from which books go in the classrooms to what snacks are served, due to the importance of consensus and harmony in Asian countries such as Taiwan.

No matter how a company approaches the issue, lots of communication is the key, said IBM's Ferris.

You have to learn a lot more about a country before you act, she said. We don't dictate to them. We have to understand.