Open Letter to Business Owners

There is a wonderful thing about business. If you repeat the same behaviors and activities, you most often get the same results, and in many cases, those results are successes. However, when it comes to early childhood and our businesses being family friendly, we have not been successful. You have heard and will hear about the crisis we’re in: our education results are slipping, families are struggling under many burdens, and people entering our workforce are less prepared for work than ever before. If we want to change this, we have to change our behaviors and activities, which means our policies—someone much wiser than me has pointed this out. As one wag put it, “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”
One factor of reversing this trend is to provide the best possible start for children before they enter kindergarten. How can businesses help in this situation? How do we truly become family-friendly and stay successful? My answer to these questions means examining the assumptions we use in business. My answer will give some specifics on how it can be done and the results of these new behaviors and policies. My answer will talk about our experience at one company in Minnesota, not to brag but only to spark some new thinking.
I have been fortunate in my career with large and small companies to have worked with confident leaders who weren’t afraid to ask questions and challenge assumptions. One expert has said that 80% of all questions are really statements in disguise. At the risk of falling to this temptation, I will ask many questions and explore some assumptions.

Now, we’re focusing on early childhood. And what does that have to do with business?

Your employees were once children. They grew up, went to school for many years and got jobs with other businesses perhaps, or your business is the first job they’ve held. Now they are employed and trying to be successful for themselves and for you. Many of them have children. Some of those children may be employed by you in 10-20 years. What kind of employees will they be? How can you get involved to make sure they will be the best they can be, in your business?
If your employees, their parents, are given some options to be there, and provide for them, and encourage them, those kids will most likely turn into great employees.
So how do we do that? We as businesses can’t parent the children, but we can make sure the parents have opportunities to be around when it’s important. When it’s important to be around, often conflicts with work hours. So let me ask the manufacturers in our area: Why do we operate our factories in shifts, with fixed starting and stopping times? Think about the answer to the question. Most of the time the answer is “Because we’ve always done it that way in this company and in most of the others.” But how did it ever get started and what is the business purpose for shifts? What if you had good coverage, but people could be flexible in their hours. Our production teams are self-directed or self-managed. They determine who’s going to be there at any time and make sure the work gets done. The team is held accountable for certain goals. In exchange, we give them the responsibility and authority to determine vacations, time off, overtime, etc.
At our manufacturing company, we say we’re open from 6 am (because of overtime) to midnight. As long as the employee works 40 hours in the week, it doesn’t matter when they work. They work it out with the rest of the department to make sure not everyone is gone, and there aren’t any special requirements for skills that mean they have to be there at a particular time. Many people will work 6 am to 2:30 pm, five days a week. It works for their family schedule. Some come in later. Many will work one half-day occasionally and make up their time on other days. We have one employee who I’ll call Sally. She’s a single mother. Almost every day, she works a few hours then goes home for a few hours to be with her children. She comes back to work later for a few more hours. Sometimes she’s in and out 3 or 4 times in a day. If we didn’t have flexible schedules, truly flexible schedules, she admits she’d have to work 2-4 part-time jobs to do what’s important in terms of her family. With us, she has health insurance and other benefits, like paid vacation and holidays. We’ve had other employees who have adjusted their schedule to accommodate their family when the other parent is on a rotating shift.
Our business has benefited because supervisors are now focusing on the important parts of the operations: improvement, team and personnel development, new technologies, etc. They no longer spend a significant portion of their week documenting tardies and absences, and discussing/disciplining/negotiating and playing games as people try avoid “black marks” on their record. One drawback: employees exercise their creativity less… because they don’t have to create excuses, or shenanigans to avoid those “black marks”.
Another question:

Why do we make new employees wait a year before they can take any vacation? We make them do this, though we’ll add them to our insurance program, which could be more costly, in 90 days. We asked ourselves this question last year, and made a change to our policy. New employees can start taking vacation after 90 days. It’s the new employees, often younger, perhaps with a family, that needs some time off to make some arrangements. This is to help when they need the time off, and can’t make up the time within the same week—our flexible schedule.
In the last 2 years, there has been an abundance of work to be done. Our employees have been putting in lots of extra hours. We do not dictate how much overtime or when. It is purely voluntary. Some are putting in 50-60%. Some are putting in 0%. We are one week behind in schedules. Is there pressure for those not doing any to do more? We ask. We also trust that they will if they can because most do. We never create a rule for the majority based on a minority problem—as some sages say, “Don’t use a shotgun to hit a target’s bulls-eye; use a rifle.” Some can’t and don’t because of family situations. We respect that and honor that.
Some of our work can be done at home. We let employees do that, even on an overtime basis. We tell them to report the actual hours when they come in the next day. We get a lot more product completed; they can be home. We trust that they’re not abusing the time reported, though we can compare it to a standard to see if it’s excessive. If it was, it would also show up as low efficiency and could affect their performance review….and their teammates’ reviews. Not only do they have to respect and show honesty for the company but also for their peers and friends.
It helps that employees own 51% of the company too.
Recently, we had an employee, who I’ll call Jill, ask to go part-time. She works in a department that has a work demand 100% greater than the capacity. Our first reaction was “No way! We need her here to train some new people that we’re hiring.” She explained her reason for asking. Her son is in the Mideast, part of the Minnesota deployment. Her ex-daughter-in-law is not able to take care of her children, Jill’s grandchildren. She is sacrificing half of her income so her pre-school grandchildren have a chance. When she shared that, we said, “Gladly!” When her son returns home, she hopes to return to full-time and we will take her back no matter what our situation is a year or so from now.
What are the assumptions we use as a business? That we have to have employees work on a set schedule, call them shifts if you will. That a team can’t get the work done by negotiating their own work schedules. That we can’t grant them certain benefits till they’ve proven themselves, though they may need those benefits now. That employees can’t be trusted to do work at home.
I challenge my fellow business leaders to think boldy, creatively and dramatic to re-examine those assumptions. Are our current policies, behaviors and activities the only way to get the business results we’re looking for? In many cases, they will not get us the results we want in the future with those employees, now kids, that you will hire 10-20 years from now. There is also an immediate return to the businesses. Our employees, for example, astound their friends with tales of the flexible hours, the take-home work, etc. They tell interviewees in the interview how wonderful it is here. Jill does this. Those applicants can’t believe it—“Is she telling the truth?” they often ask. We are generating loyal employees, and advocates for us as an employer. We have more productive employees than years ago because they are less distracted by outside concerns. When there are outside matters, they can deal with them, and then come back to work more focused. Our productivity as measured by sales dollars per employee-hour have doubled in the past 5 years.
At our company, we’re trying to do the right thing to get our future results. The work here is a little different from most businesses here in the area. Our solutions may not fit exactly with your needs without adapting. However, I can say that somewhere there’s always another option to the current practice and most often it may be a better option. It is important that we, the business leaders, do this. Please. Maybe you won’t be hiring your employees’ kids. I will be. I hope you’re giving them a chance to be the best they can be.

Thank you on behalf of all businesses and their future workforce.