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Web Services Ease Employees' Work/Life Send this article to a colleague

By Tom Starner

Among other things it's known for, the Boeing Corp. makes airplanes. Big airplanes. Using Web technology, it's also been making life easier for its employees.

For the past four years, Boeing, based in Seattle, has offered its employees access to a Web-based service called Xylo, formerly known as employeesavings.com, based in nearby Bellevue, Wash. When it first introduced Xylo, Boeing employees began receiving shopping discounts via the Web. But today, the situation has evolved into a series of offerings that include work/life services not formerly part of Xylo's original package.

"We appreciate that Xylo's work/life program is a self-service, e-commerce site that's accessible to all our employees," says Cecelia Braeden, Boeing's employee discount program manager. "But we expect this work/life program to continually get better as Xylo increases its site capabilities and adds new marketing partners."

Braeden says that while Boeing provides some work/life benefits through its employee assistance program, Xylo's work/life additions, including concierge-type services and specific channels of information, are a move in the right direction.

At Ericsson, the Swedish telecom giant with U.S. headquarters in Dallas, employees also have access to an online work/life site, this one from San Francisco-based Abilizer, another organization that changed its name (formerly Perks at Work) in the past year. And just like at Boeing, Ericsson employees are taking advantage of technology to use the services to save money, but more importantly, to save time.

"I really like the fact that Abilizer is a single place for employees, and it offers a nice clean look. Best of all for me, I don't have to talk to any vendors," says Shelley Weber, manager of work/life programs at Ericsson. 

For another of this growing breed of Web-based work/life providers - Boston-based Circles - the concept of using technology to make an employee's life easier while on the job has been at the crux of the company's strategy from day one, when it started out primarily as an online concierge service.
"Circles has been well-received here and was utilized a lot initially," says Joe DiCorpo, director of HR at Allaire Corp., a Newton, Mass., software provider and Circles customer. "In fact, utilization is higher than we had originally budgeted for, so it's being used a lot. It's a wonderful thing. It helps your daily life a lot."

What's going on? Why, all of a sudden, has the former employee discount space been transformed into a kinder, gentler, high-tech but higher-touch place? And why the recent blurring between Web companies that used to hold distinct places on the work/life continuum?

"Today's employees want, and need, to take control of their time," explains Janet Kraus, CEO and co-founder of Circles.

Results from a Circles-funded study bear out Kraus' observation. Of those surveyed, the study found that:

• 62 percent say, "Help getting things done would greatly reduce the stress in my life;" 
• 55 percent agree that, "Sometimes it's worth paying more in order to save time;"
• 50 percent agree that, "If I could, I'd pay to have more time for myself or my family;"
• 53 percent would opt for a personal assistant over a personal trainer; and
• 62 percent say they would likely use an Internet service they could rely on to act as their "personal assistant." 

"What's happening is exactly why we changed our name," says Karen Olson, director of marketing at Xylo. "People want to save money, but just as much, they want to save time. People have less and less time, so when it comes to time-savers, the Web is a natural delivery system."

How, Why it Works
Olson explains that while Xylo launched itself primarily as a savings place for employees, it soon realized that if an employee is connected to the Web at work, it makes a lot of sense to offer online services that go beyond simple shopping discounts and deals.

According to Boeing's Braeden, the company has received positive feedback from employees about the Xylo portal program in its latest iteration.

"The biggest thing we offer is how to save time and money; that's the main thrust and purpose of our program," says Olson, who notes that Microsoft, Eddie Bauer, Hewlett-Packard, Nordstrom and 3M are among Xylo's client base. "Surveys consistently show that happier employees are more productive. And they are more productive if they can get things done easily by using the Web. That all ties right into today's labor market."

In fact, a recent Xylo-commissioned survey reported that 75 percent of employees who work outside the home take care of personal responsibilities at least once a month while they are on the job. Just over one-third of employees surveyed, 36 percent, take care of personal responsibilities on a daily basis while at work.

According to Ericsson's Weber, one of the key Abilizer portal aspects that she favors is that the entire concept is Internet-based, thereby making it distinct from the company intranet.

"We're really trying to get this home to the employee's family," she says. "So we needed a secure site for Ericsson, but we wanted one on the Internet. Abilizer gives us that."

Weber says that areas such as community affairs, education classes or other topics are available through Abilizer "channels," so a spouse or retiree can read them and act on the information if he or she chooses.

"Abilizer really is now a communications tool," Weber says, "not just a shopping discount site."
In fact, Weber says, Ericsson conducts employee surveys to find out exactly what kinds of time-saving services employees want to see on the Abilizer portal, which is integrated as a link on the company intranet.

"We ask, then we develop customized channels to fit those needs," she says. For example, Ericsson will offer channels for new employees, retirees and even a channel for top performers, along with channels for personal finance, health care, personal services, pets and so forth.

All Ericsson employees receive an Internet ID when they walk in the door. For those without Web access at work or home, the company provides computers near the factory floor.

Weber says she really likes the way she can customize Abilizer's portal interface from her desktop. "You can target groups with different messages," says Weber, noting that she's the only person within Ericsson to use Abilizer nationwide. "You can target information to all employees, or if you just want to send something to people in Texas, you just go in and tell them about it on the site. It's very user-friendly. I can do it myself."

"A big part of what we do is make the employee's life easier, addressing life needs at work," says Jeremy Singer, Abilizer's vice president of business development. "A majority of what we do is through the desktop computer - from 'How will I get my dry cleaning?' to 'How can I finance my home?' "

Singer adds that the key to Abilizer's client relationship is that the company integrates a lot of the information that clients have built around employees.

"We embed that into our online experience," he says. "The touchy-feely stuff, services such as concierge, is getting harder to define. The challenge is that concierge is a very broad term that people interpret a lot of different ways."

What Abilizer does, Singer explains, is "deconstruct" the concierge concept into segments such as "Walk the dog" or "Restaurant reservations" on the site.

"We've [singled] out those concierge-type concepts and embedded them into our product," he says. "So, for example, you can find a dog walker in our Pets area."

Of course, one of the challenges all Web-based services face is that dot-com attrition means they have to stay on their toes when it comes to supplier relationships.

"It's a challenge for our team," says Singer, who notes that Abilizer has about 70 clients, including Oracle, Sun, EDS, PeopleSoft and ReMax. "We make sure we're signing up supplier companies faster than companies are going away. The Web is shifting to physical world presence."
As far as the competition, it's getting to be confusing out there.

"We sit around and try to figure out who is a direct competitor," Singer says. "But discounts are a small piece of what we do now." He adds that based on technology alone, Abilizer is easily integrated into major HRMS such as SAP, PeopleSoft or Oracle.

"Our differentiator is the ability to not only surface valuable information, but to put employer-specific data into the employer information," he says. "Apart from general information, an employee also can click on Sun or Oracle on-site daycare hours, for example. That's a killer, because you can't find that anywhere else."

More than Concierge
Another relatively recent player in this space, Sparkfly.com, based in Atlanta, began life as a true bricks-and-mortar concierge service called My Gal Friday, owned by current Sparkfly CEO and Chairman Katherine Tabor.

Tabor launched her business in 1997 as a non-technology-based dog-walking, dry cleaning-pickup concierge service in the Atlanta area. She did have a small Web site promoting My Gal Friday, a site that eventually was visited by Coca-Cola, the firm's largest customer today. Tabor joined forces with Doug Nassaur, a seasoned technology professional (GTE, E*Trade), to bring the high-tech underpinnings to Tabor's high-touch strategy. Today, Nassaur is Sparkfly's president and chief technology officer.

Unlike the competition, Sparkfly provides a private, customized, eBusiness platform to deliver products, services, content, tools and applications to employers and their employees via the company intranet. Right now, Sparkfly, which focuses strictly on Fortune 1000 companies, has, aside from Coca-Cola, two key customers, media giant Cox Enterprises and Delta Technology (a subsidiary of Delta Airlines)-all Atlanta-based.

"Employers have only been able to offer services and products to employees through Internet portals, a situation that presents risk issues to company management," says Nassaur. "We enable employers to provide additional benefits that enhance retention, without having to expose members of a company to the potential hazards and inefficiencies of the Internet."

Tabor says Sparkfly recognizes that employees confront life decisions every 12 to 15 minutes at the office, making it very difficult to balance professional lives and personal needs.

"We're seeing a new trend in employee satisfaction and retention initiatives, with many companies recognizing the importance of delivering innovative offerings that add value by helping employees realize balanced, productive and rewarding careers," says Tabor. "Companies such as Coca-Cola are looking at what they can offer employees to help them manage their daily lives. Our premium resources for information, event tickets and other products and activities will be available when employees most need them." 

Sparkfly's strategy is to be a single point for concierge services, discount shopping and other personal services, but it delivers those via a single point of entry on the company intranet. Users do not access Web sites directly, as with Abilizer, Xylo and other Internet-based work/life providers. Sparkfly also is equipped to deliver parts of its service via wireless access, as well as a kiosk-based offering in break rooms for manufacturing sites.

"Employees are tired of going to Web sites, not really knowing if they are dealing with reputable companies," Nassaur says. "We've created a user interface specific to them, but without the worry the Web can bring."

Is it popular? Nassaur says on its first day company-wide at Coca-Cola, the Sparkfly site generated 88,000 hits on the company intranet.

"It's only one connection and it completely manages bandwidth and security," says Nassaur. "We're an aggregator of all kinds of things. Most of all, we align the incentives of employers and employees, so the latter can get whatever they need to do their work immediately. But instead of a generic Web site, this is customized at the employee level. They get the same consistent user interface wherever they go."

No matter what the technology, delivering personal services and information is clearly becoming a major employee retention and satisfaction tool, according to Peter Burki, CEO of Lifecare, another company that has made the move from providing strictly life care information (child care, elder care, etc.) to offering concierge services as part of its Lifecare.com product.

At Westport, Conn.-based LifeCare, says Burki, it's about helping the individual and not about selling discounted products and services. Because LifeCare sells no banner advertising or commercial sponsorships, Burki says, employees using LifeCare.com receive the objective and reliable information and resources they need to make informed decisions about both their everyday and critical needs.

"LifeCare.com's services are an integral part of our efforts to increase productivity and recruit and retain talented employees," says Shayne Parker, senior manager of Work & Family Programs at Lucent Technologies in Murray Hill, N.J. "The new LifeCare.com Web service offers employees customized information and interactive tools to help them manage the demands of work and life."
Xylo's Olson says that companies like hers are focusing on errands and other things people just don't have time to do. But she expects that things will keep changing for the key players as employees further define what matters most to them.

"This is an evolving space," Olson says.


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