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Quebec helps business strike the right balance for workers

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

First government-administered accreditation system is designed to give companies bragging rights for hiring and retaining talent

BERTRAND MAROTTE

MONTREAL -- Quebec is touting a new business certification as an innovative way to put the province at the forefront of the work-life balance movement.

Whatever its merits - and not everyone is convinced of the benefits - the Work-Family Balance accreditation is being touted as the first government-initiated program of its kind in the world.

"This standard is a seal of excellence that sends the message that Quebec promotes the right balance between work and family," said Yolande James, the province's minister in charge of family matters.

"It addresses such key challenges for companies as finding and keeping talented employees."

Quebec has long been known for its family-friendly policies, including $5-a-day daycare, and work-family certification was the next logical step, Ms. James said.

So far there has been lots of interest from companies and public organizations, but no inquiries from other provinces or foreign jurisdictions, Ms. James said. Ontario has nothing like a provincial counterpart but is keen to know more about the program.

"It is a very interesting idea and we do look forward to learning more about this initiative," said Jane Almeida, a spokeswoman in Premier Dalton McGuinty's office.

"This is a program for companies of all sizes and in all sectors," Ms. James said, also citing the availability of Quebec government subsidies for work-family initiatives that already exist. "Even smaller companies can do it."

Steve Couture said he didn't need any outside incentives to get him started on a work-life balance program at the company he heads: video game developer Frima Studio in Quebec City.

"We've been doing it on our own for two years," added Mr. Couture, chief executive officer of the 270-employee business. "We view it as an investment."

The workplace measures at Frima include flexible work time, free bus passes, in-office massage therapy and a performance rewards system that allows staff to trade points for such services as child care and house cleaning.

Mr. Couture said the family-friendly policy implemented at Frima resulted in clearly measurable results, such as a higher rate of employee commitment and a reduced rate of voluntary departures.

"At how many companies can an employee say, 'My boss paid to have my living room repainted?'"

He insisted the new government program has nothing to do with adopting a soft and fuzzy approach to human resources. It's all about cold, hard calculations.

The video-games sector is a fiercely competitive one that includes companies routinely engaging in talent poaching. Winning over and hanging on to that talent is key, and a positive work-life balance can play a significant role in the mix of what you need to offer employees, he said.

But there is still a lot of convincing to do when it comes to getting a critical mass of companies on board, said Susan Giurleo, a U.S. psychologist, blogger and business consultant.

"This is still a hard sell to corporations. But this kind of government involvement can certainly help raise the profile."

Research findings support the contention that work-life balance policies make for better performing workers because they are happier, she added.

McMaster University business professor Nick Bontis said he's not aware of any other government certification programs similar to Quebec's, but added there are many companies - particularly in Scandinavian countries - that have for years been implementing their own work-family initiatives.

"I think this is amazing. It sends a signal to the rest of the world that Canada is pushing the envelope," said Mr. Bontis, who has just published a book entitled Information Bombardment: Rising Above the Digital Onslaught.

"For companies, there are real outcomes from these work-family measures, most notably recruitment and reduction of voluntary turnover and workplace discontent."

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GETTING ACCREDITED

The Quebec government's work-family balance certification initiative is similar to the environmental seals of approval that various groups hand out to businesses meeting or surpassing a set of green standards.

Companies, public organizations and other groups in Quebec can apply for work-family certification on a scale of one to four, four being the highest level. For a level-one rating, an organization must be awarded between 30 and 44 points. For a level four, 75 points or more.

Points are awarded from a long menu of implemented measures. If a business has a flexible work schedule it is accorded seven to nine points, while a shorter work week also nets seven to nine points.

Firms that offer staff financial or other aid for daycare get four points, while those that accommodate work-from-home agreements receive two to three points.

The standards are overseen by the Bureau de normalisation du Québec, the provincial standards body accredited by the Standards Council of Canada. They were agreed upon by a 12-member committee of employer, employee and public interest groups.

Bertrand Marotte