Virtual Manager: Mastering business in a networked world

Your husband's on the phone. Your son's on E-mail. It's another great day at the office

It's funny--whenever people use the phrase "family-friendly company," what they mean is an employer who gives employees sufficient time and flexibility to deal with spouses and kids away from the office.

Innumerable studies point to a correlation between a strong family life and increased worker productivity. Companies that have taken the hint have responded with the standard arsenal of programs and benefits: flextime, job sharing, personal leaves, and--in larger organizations--day-care services. But such programs, although certainly desirable, reinforce the segregation of office and home life. For most employees, the rules are strict: home is home and work is work, and never the twain shall meet.

But that demarcation misses the boat. My company, VeriFone Inc., has learned over time that aligning families with the business is critical not only to attracting the best people but also to keeping them focused and productive on the job. It's particularly important in a tight job market, where retaining talent is at least as difficult as finding it.

Becoming more involved with the family might sound difficult, especially for a virtual company in which geographical dispersion is the operating principle. Surprisingly, we have found that the very technologies and organizational structures that allow employees to operate efficiently apart have made it easier to bring their families and our company together.

Of those mechanisms, information sharing is probably the most effective. While VeriFone has long eschewed printed memos for internal communication, we fill our employees' home mailboxes with paper missives: newsletters, total-compensation updates, benefit-program descriptions, and stock-option purchase plans. Whenever possible, those materials are written with the entire family in mind--so, for example, a company newsletter might include a page of activities for children. Company videos are produced by employees at our individual offices. Each office gets a camcorder and directions to go out and create; the results are edited together at a single site and sent to employee homes once a quarter.

In all our material, the emphasis is placed squarely on people talking to people. Thus the binder we send home following a hire is stuffed with actual employee-generated anecdotes demonstrating excellence. One such anecdote, from our Miami office, described a volunteer relief effort mounted by VeriFone staff and their families after Hurricane Andrew wiped out many employees' homes.

But sending one-way information isn't really sharing. Our goal is to create systems that not only encourage family members to communicate with the company but also foster communication between our employees at work and their spouses and children at home, work, and school. While many companies discourage personal calls, we went to the other extreme in the early 1980s by giving all our employees' families access to VeriFone's internal network, E-mail system, and intranet. Every spouse and child gets a unique ID with which to log on to our system, where they have access to general-information sections and to areas created especially for children. We even subsidize the purchase of home PCs, the only stipulation being that they come with modems.

The exchange of short, frequent E-mail messages during the workday ("Don't forget your book report is due tomorrow" or "What do you want me to defrost for dinner?") helps create a sense of connectedness and keeps parents and kids plugged into one another's lives. Even VeriFone's on-line training is available to families: spouses and teenagers have used our resources to teach themselves everything from programming languages to how to create a Web page.

Whenever I describe these policies, someone inevitably asks how we prevent employees from abusing them--the unspoken assumption being that we must legislate limits. We do not. From its inception, VeriFone has measured people by their results: employees who spend half the day on social calls and E-mails don't complete their assignments and are soon gone. But very few do abuse. And what we've found instead is that giving people time to take care of family business makes it easier for them to focus on VeriFone business for the rest of the day.

Family members communicating among themselves is great, but VeriFone also wants to create a sense of community among its workers and their families. After all, when you labor thousands of miles away from your closest colleagues, it's unlikely that your kids will meet at the company softball game or on bring-your-daughter-to-work day. To foster that connection, we have set up a special resource area on the network for children, the most popular feature of which is a pen-pal program. Several hundred VeriFone kids living as far afield as China, India, Mexico, Europe, South Africa, and all parts of the United States now regularly E-mail one another across the company network. The program, called VeriPal, has become so popular that we're upgrading it with a graphics-based multimedia system that the kids can use to add photos, maps, and video and audio clips about their countries and cultures.

Two years ago, VeriFone took the next step and began coordinating, with the help of a third-party company, a student-exchange program, whereby employees' children from different geographic areas stay at one another's homes. A handful of our employees' kids have taken advantage of it so far, forging links with the children of their parents' colleagues, even when the adults themselves have never met. The message children get is obvious: Mom or Dad's job doesn't take them away from me; rather, it brings me together with new friends.

Other VeriFone programs and policies are more traditional but still go a long way toward integrating home and office life. In order to cut down on commuting time--wasted hours in which most employees are benefiting neither their jobs nor their families--we encourage telecommuting and videoconferencing. But "telework" can actually drive families apart, especially if the employee is regularly found hunkered over a PC while the rest of the family eats dinner or gathers round the television. At VeriFone, we stress that employees should work, as much as possible, only when the rest of the clan is also working or at school. And while other companies will monitor employees to ensure that no one is loafing, our supervisors often check time stamps on E-mails to make sure that family time isn't habitually being taken up by work.

Not everything VeriFone does to build ties with employee families is technology-based. Many of our offices host regular family nights where spouses and children learn about what's going on at VeriFone. Spouses are also invited to all major awards ceremonies and company events, where we make a point of engaging them in conversations about the real work of the business.

Other programs are meant to bring people together through charitable activities. Employees receive paid time off to perform community-service projects with their families and other VeriFoners. Projects have ranged from coordinating a major blood drive in Shanghai to planting trees around an endangered wetland in Portland, Oreg. Closer to home, employees can help colleagues in need by donating unused vacation time to a general bank. (Donations and requests for donations of time are made, like so much else at VeriFone, on-line.)

Although the vast majority of our employees love these programs, we know we have to be careful not to force them on anyone. Some people simply prefer to keep their home and office lives separate, and we honor that and let them know that they can opt out without the fear of being branded "un-VeriFone."

Of course, VeriFone didn't start out this family-friendly. As a new company back in the early 1980s, we had a strongly work-centered culture in which staffers labored long hours--not surprising when you consider that so many of our employees were young and unattached. But soon those employees began to marry and raise families, and we found ourselves paying a high price in burnout and turnover. The aforementioned programs have helped alleviate those strains, and as a result our turnover rates are lower than those of other high-tech companies of comparable size.

With those kinds of results, it becomes clear that supporting families isn't only the right thing to do morally; it's also the right thing to do for business.

William R. Pape is cofounder of VeriFone Inc., with headquarters in Redwood City, Calif. He was VeriFone's first chief information officer and has been operating virtually since 1978.