By Laura Fox • Photography By Erick Gibson
Shelia Newman, president of New Editions, a consulting firm in Falls Church, didn’t set out to create a business recognized as one of the best places to work in Washington. Her employees nominated New Editions Consulting because they know how fortunate they are to work for an employer who has found business success while creating an atmosphere based on achieving a work-life balance.
Across the Washington area, employees know firsthand the complexity of trying to create a semblance of work-life balance. Whether it’s the commute, a new baby, aging parents, continuing education or squeezing in time for relaxation, finding a flexible and challenging work environment isn’t easy.
Newman, 61, a soft-spoken executive, remembers what it was like to balance work and family responsibilities after the birth of her first child, Spencer, in 1984. She and her husband, Ford, were in living in the Washington area when Spencer was born. Their families lived seven hours away in West Virginia. She was not sure she wanted to leave Spencer with someone else but ultimately decided to go back to work and found a woman to watch him. For Newman, the breaking point came when Spencer was 8 months old. “He was going through a stranger-anxiety phase,” she says. Newman was shocked when she became the stranger that Spencer reacted to from the arms of his day care provider. “I went to get him, and he was just hanging on to her and couldn’t see that it was me.”
Newman thought working part time might be a solution to the problem. But her boss, who happened to be a woman, did not approve of part-time schedules. “So I quit and started New Editions. I was doing editing and any kind of work I could get using the journalism skills I had,” she says. Newman, who grew up in Wayne, West Virginia, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Marshall University and a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling from West Virginia University.
Newman says she is sometimes surprised by her success. “I knew I was doing a good job for the other people I worked for, but it is really scary being out on your own and doing it by yourself because there is a lot I didn’t know about business,” she says. “I don’t have a business degree. You need to know who you need to complement your skills. The best decision I made was making sure that I didn’t think I could do everything.”
For the next several years, New Editions grew, and Newman took on larger communications projects while working from home. In 1987, there was another new addition to the Newman family, Chelsea. When her children were older, Newman decided to put New Editions on hold and found positions working for government contractors. Newman says these employers provided her the flexibility to leave early to pick her children up from school and finish her work in the evening. “I had flexibility because I insisted on it,” she says.
Reinvigorating New Editions
In 2003, Newman decided it was time to give New Editions a fresh start. Her experience working for government contractors led her to believe her business could succeed by focusing on the niche area of providing services related to disability and accessibility to government agencies. Newman’s interest in rehabilitation programs stems from her own family experiences. “My brother was in a serious motorcycle accident, and 80 percent of his body was burned,” she says. “My mother developed Parkinson’s disease when she was 42. All of the sudden I had an interest in disability.”
Winning government contracts meant New Editions would have to increase staff to deliver. Newman had concrete ideas about the personnel practices she planned to implement based on her work experiences. She goes the extra step to put into practice at New Editions the accessibility and flexibility that she teaches her clients about. “I knew from the get-go that I wanted New Editions to be a place where you could have the talents of young women and people with disabilities because you offered flexibility,” she says. “If all of my contracts are about improving the quality of life for people with disabilities, the No. 1 thing that can accomplish that is a job.”
About 20 percent of New Editions’ 60 employees have disabilities that require a flexible and accessible work environment. Flexible work schedules allow some employees to telecommute or to commute using public transportation. On the job, New Editions provides assistive technology such as screen reading technology and text enlarging software for employees who are blind or have low vision and a voice entry system for employees who have dexterity problems. Even common office copiers are low enough for people who use wheelchairs to operate. The flexible work environment also includes preparing materials such as newsletters, employee manuals and information on benefits in accessible formats.
New Editions has contracts with the federal Departments of Homeland Security; Education; Health and Human Services; and the Agency for International Development. In the private sector, New Editions has contracts with Booz Allen Hamilton and IBM. Newman’s work-life balance policies have not affected the company’s bottom line. How does she know this? “If the clients are happy and I don’t get a call from a client saying you’re not doing a good job, then I am going to assume that people are doing what they are supposed to do,” she says.
New Editions is part of a growing trend of businesses that provide a flexible work environment. The 2014 National Study of Employers found “options such as working remotely saw an increase to 67 percent from 59 percent in 2008,” says Kenneth Matos, senior director of research at the Families and Work Institute and the lead author of the report. “This study is a reflection of the changes occurring in our nation.”
“Technological advances and demographic shifts in the workforce are impacting where, when and how work gets done,” says Lisa Horn, director of congressional affairs at the Society for Human Resource Management. “Organizations must adapt to remain competitive. Creating an effective and flexible workplace can help organizations meet the business needs of today and adapt to rapidly changing needs.”
Newman is proud of the Best Places to Work awards New Editions has received from The Washington Post (2015), Virginia Business magazine (2015) and Washingtonian magazine (2013). “Those are all based on employee surveys. It’s not like you can just go nominate yourself,” she says. As a business owner, embracing a work-life balance is a matter of trust, says Newman. “While they are working at home, I don’t care if they throw in a load of laundry, if they are on the phone or if they are cooking dinner. You’ll know if the work is done or not,” she says.
As chief financial officer at New Editions, Tracy Mills, 47, follows the bottom line. From her perspective, Mills believes giving employees the latitude to balance their work and family life results in employees with an incredible sense of loyalty who strive to get the job done. “If people want to balance home and family, they should be given the opportunity to do it and to shine as employees,” she says.
A Babymoon Boom Takes Hold
Newman says a turning point in her company came when her business manager told her she was pregnant. “I thought, ‘What am I going to do? She’s my business manager,’” Newman says. She immediately realized that was not the reaction she should have. Thinking about it, Newman realized she wanted to do something special for her business manager, so she created the babymoon, a weekend away for the employee and spouse paid for by the company. “We’ve kept that tradition every time a woman or a man in the company is going to have a baby,” says Newman.
Anna Lenhart, 31, a project manager at New Editions, remembers the babymoon she and her husband enjoyed at the Homestead. “It wouldn’t have occurred to us to take a babymoon,” she says. “Having that time was really lovely. You have a weekend when you are not at home trying to put together a dresser or crib.”
Lenhart had just completed graduate school when she was hired by New Editions in 2007. She thought the culture of the company fit with what she was looking for—a place to learn and grow. At that time, Lenhart didn’t realize New Editions would become recognized as one of the best places to work in the area.
What sets New Editions apart from other businesses? “People are valued,” Lenhart says. “You have the ability to balance your professional and personal life. The entire company goes out of its way to help you become the best professional you can be and also give you opportunities to meet your goals on a personal level.”
Among moms with young children she knows, Lenhart says a flexible work schedule is hugely important. “The company is generous in our pay and benefits, but what is even more important than that is the amount of paid leave, vacation, work flexibility and telecommuting. That is paramount,” she says.
The challenge of balancing work and family can be more difficult as children grow up. Lenhart works full time and telecommutes on Fridays. If her daughter gets sick or there are snow days at school, Lenhart knows having a flexible schedule means she doesn’t have to worry.
At New Editions, trust and accountability are two important company principles that are voiced by both managers and staff. Lenhart says: “As long as what I am doing for a client is done and it’s high quality, if I have to leave early for a doctor’s appointment there is never any problem here. I don’t feel like I am asking for a favor.”
A Flexible Work Environment from the Top Down
Newman believes telecommuting is an important tool in a flexible work environment, even at the senior manager level. Vice President Elizabeth Tewey lives in Pennsylvania and commutes to Falls Church one day a week. Tewey began working for Newman at a previous business. That company offered Tewey a telework option when she moved to Pennsylvania. When Newman hired Tewey at New Editions, the telework option was part of the deal. “I’d love for her to be here every day because I like her, but it isn’t feasible for her to drive two hours a day from Pennsylvania. She is so good. I didn’t want to lose her,” says Newman.
Newman recognizes the role she plays in fostering a work environment that removes obstacles to getting the work done and encourages flexibility. It is not unusual for Newman to make suggestions to employees such as splitting the work day between home and office to avoid commuting during the morning and afternoon rush hours.
Kevin Marvelle has been a senior research associate at New Editions for six years. He works from home full time and comes into the office once a month. He began working from home when his wife was hospitalized for an extended period of time. “It made my life easier to work at home. Folks trusted me. And that’s an important element in the workplace,” he says.
Marvelle, who is in his early 60s, says the culture at New Editions was apparent when he interviewed with Newman. “Shelia is really interested in having people work as a distinct part of life but recognizes they do have other responsibilities,” he says. “She ensures that people don’t overcommit their time, that folks take vacations and don’t become workaholics.”
Creating a Flexible, Fun and Charitable Business
What advice does Newman have for other employers who aspire to be one of the best places to work? “Work-life balance benefits employers because you get longevity and loyalty from the employees,” she says. “I’ve had employees get job offers, [and they] say, ‘You can’t match what my company does.’ We offer really good benefits in addition to creating a work-life balance.”
At New Editions, the word fun is also used liberally. From holiday parties and picnics to walking contests, Newman believes that fun activities build camaraderie and reduce turnover, which can be an added expense for a business. Many New Editions employees are in specialized fields and are not easy to find, so it is in Newman’s best interest to keep them as long as possible. She wonders why a company would not want to create a fun environment. “People who are happy make their clients happy—that means good work, and you get repeat businesses,” she says.
Newman has received many awards throughout her career including the 2015 Falls Church Chamber of Commerce Humanitarian Award at the chamber’s gala in March. She was nominated by one of her employees and was unaware she was winning an award. She had not prepared anything to say, so she relied on advice her mother had given her as a child: “My mother used to say: ‘You get back what you give. If you are good to people, that’s what you’ll get back.’ I always think of that. You get back what you give. So I try to give, and I feel very fortunate, financially, to be able to do so.”
New Editions supports the Arlington-Alexandria Coalition for the Homeless and other local charities. The company also encourages employees to volunteer, and when an employee is selected as employee of the year, New Editions donates $1,000 to a charity in his or her name. If hardship hits one of the New Editions employees, Newman has established a “hardship fund” that provides up to $15,000 for an emergency situation.
Newman’s life has come full circle. Although her children are now grown, she too has the need for flexibility in her schedule. Newman takes off one day a week to care for her granddaughter, Effie, who was born last November. “I love it. I can stroller her over to the office, which is near my home, if I need to come in and sign something. She’s been in the office with me just like my kids were in the office with me,” she says.
Newman also strives to create a work-life balance for herself. “I love to travel, read and walk,” she says, though she admits she is never completely away from the demands of business.