This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

How to make workers' lives easier is a question that plagues worker advocates and employers alike. Wages and benefits are clearly key parts of the equation, as middle-class earnings are stagnating. But other issues—such as scheduling and flexibility—also rank high on workers' list of concerns, according the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll. Employers looking to satisfy their workforce without spending a lot of money have found that giving employees flexibility or allowing them to choose their own shifts are good options. Some companies do a lot more, such as offering on-site day care or concierge services.

Susan Lambert has spent years watching businesses' employment operations "up close and personal." She interviews line managers, studies inventory and labor spreadsheets, and watches employees do their jobs. As a sociology professor at the University of Chicago, she is particularly interested in the retail and service industries, where people get paid by the hour to do relatively simple jobs. They are the ones to most often get left out of trendy employee perks like telecommuting or flexible scheduling, she says.

For one of her recent research projects, Lambert deliberately selected half of the firms she would observe from "great companies to work for" lists like those in Fortune or Working Mother. "Their business models, their HR models, their wonderful practices do not reach all the way down the firm. They stop," she says. "Everybody excludes some workers. The question is, how big is that group?"

After reviewing dozens of admirable employers and organizations that are working to improve the workplace from within and without, here are the 10 we believe are the most innovative.

Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE): This consulting firm coaches companies to throw away their time clocks and pay people solely for a defined result. Founders Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler want to dethrone the outdated time-in-cubicle concept such that managers are responsible only for a work product. The workers must supply that product, but the managers don't need to dictate the process of getting there. ROWE's principles are stark and simple, like this one: "Every meeting is optional. Being accountable for delivering results is not."

ROWE in its purest form is essentially a salary-for-service model of employment. There are no vacation days. There are no "off" hours or "on" hours. There is only a defined task and a person or team who completes that task. It is up to the employees to determine how that happens, whether it's from a coffee shop in mid-afternoon or in a closet-sized home office at 3 a.m. If the work gets done, they get paid. If it doesn't, they get fired.

See National Journal's in-depth profile of ROWE here.

HourlyNerdThis high-end freelance Web site is carving out a new marketplace for skilled business contracting. It culls from a broad network of M.B.A. students and graduates who bid on the consulting equivalent of "odd jobs," everything from analysis of a retailer's competition to setting up social media for a nonprofit. These are the kinds of tasks that small businesses can't afford because traditional consulting retainer fees are out of reach. Big firms typically don't bother with such chores because they want to reserve their employees and expensive consultants for bigger projects.

HourlyNerd is cultivating a project-based economic space that trades on highly specific skills that may shift from one project to the next. This new environment gives workers the freedom to market themselves based on their unique abilities without fear of being seen as overspecialized. They also can choose how and when they work. Employers, for their part, can be more nimble in exploring growth opportunities, knowing that the long-term costs of embarking on new ventures are minimal because the jobs are done on a contract basis.

See National Journal's in-depth profile of HourlyNerd here.

Communities in Schools of Kalamazoo: It's impossible to talk about easing workers' lives without discussing child care, a headache for all working parents and a particularly difficult problem for low-income workers. Communities in Schools is a national organization that embeds itself in schools around the country to give disadvantaged students various types of assistance—such as food or clothing—that the schools themselves can't provide.

The Communities in Schools chapter in Kalamazoo, Mich., operates an unusually helpful after-school a program designed to take pressure off low-income parents who may be juggling two or three low-paying jobs with erratic hours. Kids get help with their homework, tutoring if needed, a hot meal, and a bus ride home. Imagine that. This is every working parent's dream child-care situation. It fills in those odd hours after school but before the work day is done, and it uses that time to eliminate the homework and meal routines that can overwhelm those precious evening hours before bedtime.

See National Journal's in-depth profile of Communities in Schools of Kalamazoo here.

WellStar Health System: This health care network, with more than 12,000 employees in Marietta, Ga., has worked hard to be considered one of the best employers to work for by Working Mother, Fortune, and the Society for Human Resource Managers. It is one of the few nongovernment employers that give workers a traditional pension plan. It offers other rarities like an on-site day care center and a concierge service that picks up workers' dry cleaning, takes their cars for oil changes, or does their grocery shopping.

But that's not what has made the most difference in the lives of the nursing staff. It's WellStar's new online scheduling system, called Smart Square, which allows them to pick their own shifts. Employees can schedule around their children's school breaks, their families, or, in one employee's case, her chronically ill mother's doctor appointments. In jobs like nursing that require rigid adherence to work shifts, forward-thinking employers like WellStar have struggled to find ways to help these workers manage their non-work responsibilities. Smart Square has an app that gives employees access to their schedules at all times. It allows managers to analyze previous patterns to schedule the nursing staff more effectively. Everyone feels like they have more control.

See National Journal's in-depth profile of WellStar here.

Roca: Employment is most difficult for the people on the fringes of society, the ones who are raised with few resources and surrounded by crime. Roca is a Massachusetts nonprofit that aims to reduce jail time for young people in these situations and serve as a transitional training program for those who have little education or job experience. Many of Roca's clients have a history of substance abuse and a criminal record. The group's intensive "intervention model" uses street outreach, data-based case management, education in life skills (such as showing up to work on time and following directions), vocational training, and job placement.

Recognizing that securing employment when coming from a poor and crime-ridden upbringing is a long, multifaceted process, Roca signs up each client for four years. Most enrollees earn minimum wage and go through a wide variety of counseling programs. The goal for a new entrant is to work 60 days in a row. Many fail, and some are fired at least once. Roca expects that it will take five tries for their clients to make it. Which is why the group also provides a rehiring process that analyzes why clients lost their jobs and helps them learn how to alter damaging behaviors. 

Wist Office Products: The owners of this 80-employee office-supply distribution center in Tempe, Ariz., really hate to lose their workers. Most of them do tough manual labor, and the hours are set ahead of time to meet delivery orders. Day-to-day shift flexibility and telecommuting aren't options, but the company has figured out another way to keep their paid-by-the-hour workers happy—no small feat. Wist routinely lets workers rotate through different jobs, temporarily or permanently, as they face different demands outside of work and their skills grow. "What you find is, their lives tend to change or their skills are suited to a different position. They have a change in family. We try to be flexible with people," says Ian Wist, who co-owns the company with his brother, Robert.

For example, Wist hired a graveyard-shift manager to stock shelves and assemble orders for the morning drivers. The owners knew that the overnight hours weren't ideal for the new manager, but they saw his potential as a long-term worker and hired him anyway. He did great in the job on the midnight shift and, when another employee moved into a new position, he jumped at the chance to become a morning driver. "He got to see how what he was doing at night affected the morning," Wist says. "It's like a light goes on in their heads. They've kind of become embedded in the organization."

Point B Consulting: Consulting is a high-octane job that usually requires a lot of travel and can cause severe burnout. Point B, a midsized consulting firm in eight cities around the country, has earned the No. 2 spot on Consulting magazine's list of best companies to work for because it is actively combating the burnout factor. The firm also is on SHRM's list of best workplaces because of its workplace flexibility.

Travel is optional at Point B. Employees dictate their own schedules based on their client's needs. They can choose how much or how little they would like to work. Because they are not required to travel, they are also encouraged to become involved in their communities by coaching Little League or volunteering. A critical component of Point B's work culture is preventing overwork. If an associate bills too many hours, a company leader will call and ask if more support is needed for the project. The firm recently became 100 percent employee-owned, which gives each consultant a tangible stake in his or her work.

B-Lab: This nonprofit group certifies companies as "B Corps," which means they are beneficial for people and the planet. It lobbies for B Corp tax status for these employers, which has been implemented in 27 states. A big advantage of a B Corp tax status, according to Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, is that corporate boards are not required to maximize their shareholder profits if the actions would harm their workers or the society at large. It gives them an extra shield against decisions that would line shareholders' wallets but harm everyone else, including employees.

"Our goal is to support all people using business as a force for good, and there are many ways to do that," says Katie Kerr, B-Lab's director of communications. Companies are evaluated on how they pay their employees, whether they offer them stock options or employee-ownership possibilities, and how they treat them in the workplace. It gets company's attention. Among the certified B Corp firms is King Arthur Flour, which offers its workers 40 hours of paid volunteer time and free and subsidized baking classes.

The most-trafficked page on the B-Lab website is the one that lists the best companies for workers. "People are really eager to work at those companies, particularly millennials," says Kerr

Eric Mar and David Chiu, San Francisco legislators: San Francisco's board of supervisors last month passed an ordinance, written by Democratic supervisors Mar and Chiu, which requires retail employers to post work schedules 14 days in advance and pay workers extra for last-minute changes. The ordinance also requires workers to receive at least four hours of pay if they show up for a shift and are sent home. The new law recognizes that employment conditions affect every aspect of a person's life, like child care, elder care, school, and more. Uncertainty about how much a worker will get paid week to week can lead to difficulties in paying rent or utilities, or even buying food.

The ordinance is being hailed by worker advocates as a model for other cities. Mar says he has met with mayors of several other cities about his experience in passing the law, which required negotiating with the business community. San Francisco, a politically liberal city, is already outside the norm when it comes to worker protections. It has one of the highest minimum-wage laws in the United States, at $10.74 per hour now and on its way up to $15 per hour by 2018. It also has passed laws mandating paid sick leave and cracking down on "wage theft," when employers encourage workers to work off the clock.

Mar is now concentrating on the implementation of these laws, particularly the retail workers rules. "It's really important as a supervisor that I work to ensure there is enforcement, that workers are educated and they know they have these new rights," he says. For his part, Chiu is headed to the state Assembly, where he hopes to convince legislators to pass a similar statewide law.

SAS Institute: This software-analytics firm is the gold standard in terms of employee relations. It has won numerous awards, including the No. 1 spot in Gold Standard's Top 25 Companies for Work-Life Balance. Workers and their families at SAS headquarters in Cary, N.C., have access to a gym with racquetball, volleyball, and basketball courts, a cardio and weight room, and a heated Olympic-sized swimming pool. There are outdoor tennis courts and walking trails, and even a meditation garden. The campus has a free on-site health care clinic with physicians, nutritionists, physical therapists, and psychologists. There is an on-site child-care center that offers summer camps for school-age children, all at a discounted price. Other on-site services include a hair salon, a nail salon, massage therapy, alterations and shoe repair, car detailing, and dry cleaning.

The company has made a standard practice of measuring worker sentiment, working with an executive management team to put together a global employee survey, which is anonymous. SAS workers are surveyed on whether there is open communication between and among managers and teams, respect for and from fellow employees, transparency into career-paths, and whether they are treated appropriately as human beings. The company's leaders believe that employees see how their voices matter when they are asked for feedback. They ask employees to be candid in their responses and build trust by responding to their concerns.

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal and part of our Next Economy coverage.

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