“The business community, too, bears responsibility for society”

Benno Singer is the CEO of the engineering firm ewr. Singer, who holds a degree in civil engineering from ETH Zurich, emphasizes a work-family balance at his company. “Satisfied employees make all the difference,” says Singer, 55, who is the father of three nearly grown-up sons. In our interview, the READY! ambassador explains his approach.

What is your earliest memory, and how old were you at the time?
Benno Singer: When I was three and a half years old, I was given skis as a Christmas present. I immediately wanted to try them out in our backyard. My father set up a small circular course, roughly 15 meters in length, where I could try out my new skis. It seemed incredibly long, and the snow seemed so high. Today, when I’m in the backyard, I can’t help but think of my first attempts at skiing.

What does it mean to you to promote the well-being of children between birth and age 4?
It means taking the first steps with them, but not always holding their hand. It’s important for them to be able to walk on their own. Supporting children under the age of 4 means allowing them the freedom to experiment as well as to stumble occasionally. Obviously you have to set limits, but I think it important for them to try things out, to imitate – or not, as they choose.

Let’s talk about a work-family balance: How do you find such a balance in your personal life?
It’s a challenge to devote equal attention to the interests of the entire family as well as to the interests of each individual, so that no one feels shortchanged. It takes ongoing negotiation and discussion.

Do you have a formula for doing this?
No. I simply try to keep the weekends free for my family. During the week, we set aside certain times based on individual needs. On Friday evenings, for example, I play volleyball, while my wife, Kathrin, goes to orchestra rehearsal on Monday evenings. We’ve done that for decades. You shouldn’t plan out every second of your life. It’s better to create a cushion – setting aside enough time that you can respond to any urgent needs of others that may spontaneously crop up, deferring your own needs for later.

Why did you decide to commit yourself to READY! and thus also to a comprehensive early childhood policy?
Working with other like-minded people in this effort gives me a gratifying sense of moving a step forward and making a difference.

“We have almost completely eliminated the concept of core time. Our employees greatly appreciate this flexibility and the autonomy it gives them.”

What, specifically, is your company doing in this area?
I emphasize a work-family balance in my company. We encourage flexible work hours and permit employees to work part-time; we allow people – including executives – to work from home or from a mobile office. We have almost completely eliminated the concept of core time. Our employees greatly appreciate this flexibility and the autonomy it gives them. It allows them more freedom. Of course, good organization and consideration for one another are essential for this model to succeed. Our company employs three generations of workers, each generation with different needs. We quickly realized that there is no longer a single model of work hours that suits everyone. But everyone appreciates flexibility.

What about more generous paternity leave – is that something that is being talked about at your company?
Five years ago we started to offer one week of paid paternity leave. That was relatively progressive in the engineering and planning sector, which tends to be traditional, and not everyone understood our decision. We care about the well-being of our female employees, too. We offer maternity leave at full pay, since we want new mothers to return to our company after giving birth – in some cases at reduced work hours, if that is what they want.

Is your company considering the idea of in-house daycare centers?
We have several small branches that employ between five and ten people, and daycare centers are not a realistic possibility for them; they’re just too small. We know that parents prefer to have child care near their homes, rather than at the company. That provides for greater flexibility in case something unexpected occurs. That’s why we have abandoned the possibility of creating in-house daycare centers. We also considered contributing to the costs of daycare, but ultimately rejected that idea – not least because we didn’t want to engage in endless discussions about the needs of other groups. I find it interesting, however, that whenever the government introduces something new, such as child allowances, it is accepted without further discussion. We might possibly think about financing non-family child care through a child care fund.

When it comes to early childhood, what does Switzerland do especially well? Can you give us an example?
In Switzerland, we are world champions in conducting analyses. However, it gets complicated when we have to decide how to fund early childhood education. The federal government serves as a role model in the early childhood sector: Government employees benefit from attractive employment conditions that enable them to achieve the right balance between their jobs and their families.

“Paternity leave should be regulated by the government, and it should last for considerably more than one day. The government needs to take responsibility in this area.”

Where do you see the greatest need for action? What isn’t working as well as it should and needs to be improved?
Paternity leave should be regulated by the government, and it should last for considerably more than one day. The government needs to take responsibility in this area. Various models are currently under discussion. As I mentioned, we offer our employees one week of paternity leave, but we notice that most young fathers need two or three weeks. So they use vacation time, although vacations are intended to be a time for employees to relax and recuperate. Paternity leave is by no means a vacation.

You want the government to take responsibility. How should it do that? The popular initiative is demanding four weeks of paternity leave, while the Federal Council is counting on the contribution of employers and the social partners.
I think the government has the responsibility to introduce a well-regulated paternity leave and to make sure it is funded. That could be done through the fund for loss of earnings (EO) – as in the case of maternity leave.

What responsibilities does the business community have, in your opinion?
The private sector has an obligation to cover a portion of the costs – along with employees themselves and the government. The business community, too, bears responsibility for society. It needs to create the cultural conditions necessary to ensure that people are not stigmatized simply for taking advantage of a right to which they are entitled.

What do you mean, exactly?
We need a corporate culture that makes it easier to achieve a work-life balance. The right approach is to be flexible about the times when employees need to be present. This is an area in which management must take the lead. Executives should not expect, and certainly not insist, that employees will always be available. And employees, in turn, should not expect that of their supervisors.

“At the management level, I have banned the use of email late in the evenings and on weekends, except in cases of emergency.”

How do you handle this in your company?
I provide a role model. At the management level, I have banned the use of email late in the evenings and on weekends, except in cases of emergency. Personally, I don’t want to feel driven by my work. That’s why I don’t check email on my smartphone. And do you know what? I’ve done quite well with that approach.

What is your response when someone says, “A small or medium-sized enterprise can’t afford to offer part-time work or paid paternity leave”?
Providing part-time jobs is a matter of the necessary will and organization. Naturally, certain compromises are needed. However, satisfied employees make all the difference, and a respectful working atmosphere has an effect on customers, too.

Your company employs 200 people. If one of your employees takes advantage of paternity leave and then uses vacation time as well, you’re somehow able to compensate for his absence. In a small business with, say, five employees, someone else would have to fill in. And many SMEs can’t afford that. What’s your response to that argument?
Some of our branches are much like SMEs, but we have the advantage that we can find replacements from the entire ewp group. Let me make a bold suggestion: As a SME, I would try to partner with other businesses – even competitors. In the event of capacity shortfalls, for example, companies could help each other out by providing personnel. After all, paternity leave is something you know about in advance. We take a similar approach with our trainees. Instead of having them rotate only within the ewp group, we allow them to gain experience working at another company as necessary. Obviously, we offer the same opportunities to a partner company’s trainees.

How would you convince critics that investing in early childhood will pay off for Switzerland over the long term?
For economic reasons alone it is worthwhile to invest in early childhood, ensuring that every child has access to equitable opportunities. Just think of the secondary costs that can be saved. But investing in early childhood and providing access to non-family childcare also mean safeguarding a work-family balance and increasing the employment rate among women. This will help to address the lack of skilled workers as well.

Interview Author: Thomas Wälti