SMALL and medium enterprises (SMEs) often lack the financial muscle to offer generous benefits and leave allowances that larger multinationals can give, but this has not stopped them from trying.

For many of these smaller businesses, it is about creating an environment where their employees can be upfront about their family-care needs without needing to worry about a backlash or a negative performance appraisal.

This is an aspect many SMEs focus on. They are finding that it does not necessarily entail an astronomical cost, and yet gives their employees the peace of mind to carry out their work. Mutant Communications, a growing public relations agency in Singapore with 16 full-time staff, offers all mothers extended maternity benefits in the form of a gradual return to work.

In a new mother's first month back at work, she works 15 hours a week on full salary.

The following month, this goes up to 20 hours a week, and in the third month, 30 hours a week.

Eventually, these women will be back at work for 40 hours per week, or full-time.

The agency's chief executive Joseph Barratt said: "The 'gradual-return' policy at Mutant is a win-win for both the employee and the business: the new mother gets time to acclimatise to her 'new normal' and make a transition back into work, and the business is then more likely to retain that employee because she feels happy and supported during this big change." He added that having flexible, family-friendly policies does not mean the bottomline needs to take a hit; neither is it a "radical" benefit that will cost the business. Another practice that SMEs are starting to embrace is the offering of flexible work arrangementsand working from home.

Tollyjoy Baby Products is a local SME that offers both options to its staff, 95 per cent of whom are women.

Its chief executive Tan Wee Keng said that their HR (human resources) policies include starting work later than the usual time or taking leave of absence any time during the day so employees can attend to family-related matters. Staff can also opt to work remotely, as technology bridges the gap. He said: "The age-old mindset of a company's management that employees have to be physically present in order to do their work effectively has not been an issue for us; our work-from-home option has proven very popular."

He holds up the staff retention rate as a good barometer of the company's pro-family culture and inclusive working environment: Most of the company's staff have been there for more than a decade on average. This includes 15 per cent who have stayed 25 years, 18 per cent who have been there for 20 years, and a quarter for 15 years.

Seven in 10 employees are working mothers who have returned to work, whether on part-time or full-time.

Atlas Sound & Vision, another local SME, offers telecommuting on a case-by-case basis, as well as six days of fully-paid flexible family-care leave.

The leave can be used by all staff in all family situations, from new parents taking care of infants to singles needing to bring their parents for a medical appointment.

Its chief executive Sherwin Siregar said: "In the business community, there has been some noise about paternity leave. But for us, we encourage and expect people to be there for their families. Resource constraints in terms of cost and manpower are real for everybody, but our philosophy is that we want everybody to be their best at home and at work."

He points out that family needs will always exist, and businesses which do not acknowledge this will find that their people are "physically present, but mentally not there".

"People are productive when they are able to concentrate and be in the zone. We are trying to build a culture where there's clear accountability, where you can make your own arrangements instead of controlling people."

SMEs may not have the resources to compete with the big boys, but many are doing what they can to make the workplace culture an attractive one.

At Ramada and Days hotels Singapore at Zhongshan Park, the show of support for those with family needs comes in the small gestures: Pregnant employees in operations are exempted from the night shift, and are assigned simpler tasks to avoid prolonged standing and walking.

Associates working in non-operational functions such as finance and human resources also have the option of working from home. Ten per cent of the staff are on flexi-work arrangements.

The hotels' pro-family culture comes through also in their recruitment process. Director of HR and Quality Josephine Chua cited the example of a job applicant whose pregnancy came to light before she signed her contract. This did not prejudice her being hired, and this employee is still on the staff now, two years later. To those women who fear that they may lose out in career prospects if they go on flexible work arrangements, Ms Chua said this concern can be addressed with clear HR policies and guidelines used to administer these policies. "Most importantly, there has to be clear communication between the manager and staff to agree on key work deliverables. We then measure these results along with their commitment to their job."

So, regardless of the less-than-stellar reputation SMEs tend to have as employers, it seems that quite a few out there go the extra mile to support their employees in their personal and work lives.

They may not be able to compete with multinationals in terms of branding and benefits, but they are able to offer a different value proposition - a family-friendly culture and flexibility - something money cannot buy.