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How one company is balancing spreadsheets - and lives

If anyone could figure out the balance sheet between work commitments and the pressures of daily life, of course it would be accountants.

The Canadian division of KPMG, which provides audit and tax services, has been named one of Canada's Top 11 Employers for eight years in a row. To accomplish this, the firm has offered a grab-bag of benefits and programs to improve their 5,000 employees' flexibility.

The company says they didn't have a choice: With a young workforce recruited straight out of university, and women constituting 50 per cent of their employee base, offering work-life balance is a necessary tool for attracting the best, and retaning them.

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This is what KPMG offers: flexible job schedules, a salary top-up for 17 weeks of maternity leave, four weeks of paternity leave, bonuses for staff who volunteer in the community, access to elder care - and a concierge service to help an employee, say, renew his passport or plan his family vacation while at the office. But that's not to say the company hasn't had their issues.

In 2008, the company paid out an estimated $10-million after a Toronto employee named Alison Corless launched a class-action lawsuit claiming support staff were denied compensation for overtime. The bulk of KPMG's staff are chartered accountants, who are excluded from the country's overtime provisions. But Ms. Corless, a "technician," said she was owed $87,000 in unpaid overtime accrued over her four years with the company.

In the aftermath of the lawsuit, KPMG audited each one of its national offices to ensure they were compliant with overtime legislation, which varies by province. "Once we realized we were off side we just said we're going to fix it," said chief human resources officer Mario Paron. Mr. Paron said that because the company trades in billable hours, they have also been able to track the effectiveness of work-life programs. Productivity has not been negatively affected. In fact, the programs have occasionally helped protect the bottom line.

In 2009, the company needed to reduce its staff. Instead of layoffs, it offered the option of a year-long sabbatical, during which employees would receive a portion of their pay. Some 230 people took advantage of the program.

The Globe talked to four employees about how the company has helped them manage their busy lives.

CEO Bill Thomas

Why work-life balance is important

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The 40-year-old married father of three prioritizes time with his kids: Georgia, 13, Nathan, 11, and Anna, 8.

How he sees it

"The thing that I recognize now more than ever, is that I have to be very careful with my time. I'll work on the weekends but coming to the office on the weekend is a significant issue. Hell better be freezing over. When I work on the weekends I'll get up early, because I'm an early morning person, and I'll work downstairs in my office. The first one of my kids that gets up, that's when I stop.

"There's some things the job demands of me that mean I'll never do some things other dads will do, and I think I have to come to grips with that. I'm never going to win the quantity-of-time race, but I'm very focused on winning the quality race. The time that I do spend is very much focused on them and totally engaged. Ever since my first daughter was born, on Saturday mornings I walk her to the Starbucks and back again as a way to give my wife some more sleep. Here we are 13 years later and now the four of us go.

"I have things I describe as the "do-not-miss events:" Saturday mornings, concerts, parent-teacher nights. It's easy to look at a job like this and say you're too busy and you can't make this and that, but yes you can. I was in Australia about 24 months ago during the week before Halloween, doing a review of the Australian firm. They wanted to have a meeting on Friday the 31st and I told them, 'No way.' We had the meeting on Thursday night and I caught an 11 o'clock plane out of Sydney and was back to Toronto in time to take my kids out for Halloween.

"My wife is a saint and a huge reason why I'm able to do this job. I also take my holidays. There's a lot of CEOs that I think just don't take them. I'm not prepared to do that. I get five weeks and I take them all. I had a phenomenal mentor, who unfortunately passed away at 49 and I can tell you that when you have somebody who's that much of an influence pass away when they're that young, it really makes you put your priorities in the right place.

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"Yes, it's absolutely easier now that I'm the boss. The higher up you go in an organization, the more ability you have to set your own schedule. I think it's naive to think that first-year students feel completely comfortable doing that, but I also think part of the problem is that they might not take as much control of their time as we give them the ability to. In our professional environment, there's a huge requirement to work at times when our clients are most demanding, and there's a lot of flexibility in times when it's slower.

I think there is a demand for flexibility from a younger population. My own personal view is that it's positive. I do think it's a business challenge that businesses have to address."

Chief human resources officer Mario Paron

Why work-life balance is important

With more than 5,000 employees and 30 offices across Canada, and a young workforce with a 50-50 gender split, he's responsible for keeping everyone happy.

How he sees it

"We've really tried to move away from the term work-life balance. It's impossible to chase the concept because it's different for every person and it changes depending on where they are in their lives. As an organization, what we talk about is flexibility. You don't need to be sitting in an office, you can be just as productive working from a client's office or from home. You can go pick up your kids at school if you need to and then work later in the evening to get something done.

"I like to think our organization was never about face time anyway, but certainly technology has made a difference. We're doing a pilot program with iPads right now. A small number of people in the firm have one, including me. Talk about having access. It's real time connectivity, any time. It allows you to be so much more productive and flexible. We have a number of people who work compressed work weeks. Telecommuting is pretty common. All of those things we use to deal with people's flexibility.

"We survey our people annually and these are the types of things they tell us are important. When billable hours are the bread and butter of your industry, you're monitoring productivity quite closely and these things help people be productive. Senior managers at the firm understand that if you give people a true element of control over their lives, you take the stress level down a whole lot.

"After the [overtime]lawsuit, we went through every business unit we have across the country to make sure that we're 100 per cent compliant with overtime legislation. The vast majority of our work force is actually exempt from overtime because they're CAs or lawyers. But once we realized we were off side we just said we're going to fix it. If people work overtime now, they get paid. We scan the marketplace and make sure we're not falling behind in terms of where the HR trends are. It's hard for me to assess whether we're ahead of the curve or not. But I think our programs are very progressive.

"I'm working from home today. I had a piece of software put on my computer a month ago so my office phone rings on my home computer. Unless I have a meeting that I'm physically required to be in, I can just as easily work at home. Nobody's surprised I'm not there."

Canadian tax partner David Downie

Why work-life balance is important

He has two adopted children, Emerson and Adele.

How he sees it

"It was my wife who actually found out about the adoption program. When you go through the process of dealing with infertility, adoption is obviously one of the options that comes up. The firm will sponsor up to $20,000 per child. I wouldn't say it drove the decision to go that way but it certainly helped. It just made it a lot easier. We adopted twice from China, the first time was in 2006 and the last time was last November. Dealing with infertility is a bit isolating, it's one of those things you don't talk about. Just having that support was helpful.

"I was planning on taking the time off as vacation. And then one day my boss says to me, "You're going to think it's Christmas." I didn't know what he was talking about and then a day later, the firm announced that they were starting to offer paternity leave. I took a month of fully paid paternity leave and I had a month of vacation to take later. It was a pretty sweet deal. Other people who have adopted from China, when they find out about the benefits that I got, they can't believe it, because most of them pay out of their own pocket. We would have done it regardless but it was a bonus.

"I never considered KPMG because they had this policy or anything, but when it came time, it was just there and it definitely helped. We spent about $19,500 the first time and probably about $20,000 the second time. You just submit the expenses and they are covered. I know a number of individuals who have done it in this office. So it's always nice to talk to them. I have no idea why the company does it, I'm just appreciative."

Senior events manager Andrea Boulden

Why work life balance is important

A mother of two, her nine-year-old son, Liam, has Tourette's Syndrome, obsessive compulsive and bipolar disorders and learning disabilities.

How she sees it

"It's been a really challenging road. I was working here when he was diagnosed and it was really stressful. Most mothers of children with special needs have to leave their jobs because they just can't keep up with the corporate life. I think I've been able to manage because I've always had bosses who were really supportive.

"I don't feel guilty leaving early and I've had to run out many times. I'm always on my Blackberry, so that made it workable for me. I always reassure the director of my department, but she never asks for that reassurance. I know that she trusts me. There have been times where I've said 'Oh my god, this has happened,' and she's just said; 'Go.' She's the one telling me this is more important.

"Last February I had to take a month off for personal reasons, all the stresses of my life, and she was so supportive and she did my job while I was away. I have eight people who report to me and they were also really supportive and sent me a big care package. I couldn't do it otherwise. It was full salary while I was gone.

"I also chair the Special Parents Network, which was started about three years ago by a partner in North York. He had a daughter with autism and started the group and I took over in January as chair. It's a national group, where about 30 people from across the country come on a conference call and listen to guest speakers who discuss different issues, like work-life balance, how to manage your relationship, the transition to high school. A lot of their kids have autism, my child has mental illness, others are physically disabled or have Down's Syndrome, that kind of thing. I try and find to find topics that appeal to everyone. It's once a month and we do it at 3 o'clock in the afternoon.

"I've been able to get funding this year from the company's Diversity Group to bring in speakers and we have different internal web sites and articles that we write about the group, encouraging people to join. Everyone finds it very helpful.

"Leaving my job was never an option, financially, and I do love coming here. I love the two parts of my life."

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