Read Obama's Lips: Workplace Flex Not a Women's Issue

BlogHer Original Post

A few things really struck me at the first ever White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility. The first is that President Obama said “Workplace flexibility isn’t just a women’s issue.” Even if no public policy results from today’s session, the culture change that comes when people like Obama say things like that is big.

The President continued to stress the huge disconnect between the needs of our families and the demands of our workplaces. Many employers, he noted (and employees, I’d argue) see flexibility as a special perk for women rather than as a critical part of a workplace that can help all of us. How we treat our employees and each other at work “reflects our priorities as a society ... raising the next generation and caring for our loved ones is the most important job you have." He asked the audience to spread the word and said, “my administration is committed to supporting efforts” to extend flexible workplaces.

Let me be clear that flexibility at work does not mean working part-time. Flexibility means that workers have the right and ability to schedule their work hours and make time for their lives outside of work. This could be child care or elder care. It means people can go back to school to continue their education or learn new skills. In some lucky workplaces, it means you can pursue your dreams or even work at the hours that suit you best (as Jim Turley, CEO of Ernst & Young said, flexibility means I can e-mail you at midnight if that works for me. It also means you don’t have to answer the email until the morning). Study after study shows employers who provide flexible workplaces have lower turnover, higher employee productivity, and a stronger bottom line. A study released today by the Joint Economic Council contains hundreds of supporting figures.

The second remarkable thing is that the federal government -- in the guise of the Office of Personnel Management -- has hired Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler, founders of ROWE (and authors of a book called Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It). ROWE stands for “results only work environment,” and it was pioneered at Best Buy a few years ago. When you work in a ROWE, you have no schedule, no PTO, and your time is pretty much yours as long as you get you work done. The OPM will be pioneering a ROWE project with 400 workers. I know that President Obama wants to make working for the feds “cool” again. This would seem to be a good start.

The third issue is the thorniest and reflects the tenor of most debates these days. Are flexible work practices borne out of innovative businesses or from public policy guidelines? There is no agreement on this issue, but there was much discussion today among the assembled business leaders (including the CEOs of Ernst & Young and Campbell’s Soup), union leaders, and public policymakers.

Dr. Christina Romer of the Council of Economic Advisors led a round-table discussion of leaders from all areas of work (such a cool room: Cokie Roberts to Joan Blades of MomsRising to Leslie Perlow of Harvard Business School and Ellen Galinsky of Families and Work Institute). Business leaders at firms can point to the innovative workplace practices among their roving teams of accountants and consultants and say, we’ll innovate ourselves because our assets are the people we employ. Flexibility makes sense for such firms. Their biggest problem, it seems to me, is controlling the overwork that accompanies technology and roaming offices. As Leslie Perlow of Harvard noted, it’s not that high-end workers spend so much time “at work,” it’s that they are always on -- always online.

Those who represent low-wage workers tell a different story. Seventy-nine percent of low-wage workers who happen to be women don’t get any paid sick days at all. Public policy protection in the name of paid leave and the right to request flexible scheduling provides a baseline of protection. Low-wage workers need support from policymakers -- they have the opposite of workplace flexibility. They don’t make schedules -- and as the president put it, they run on a high-wire act. If one piece of the care-giving puzzle falls apart, they can easily be fired. If we are a society that believes in putting family first, said one union leader, we need to put family-supportive policy in place. We are behind 170 countries in terms of policy: the U.S. has no paid parental leave, for example.

The First Lady noted that having her mother around made all the difference. She laughingly challenged the room, “We all need one of those, so can you figure that out?”

Isn’t that the truth? But how many of us have a grandma at home? At the end of the day, whether your workplace is supportive of your needs or punitive, you’re going to have to scramble for care. Most of us depend on a web of support, both paid help and family, to make it work. Mrs. Obama said when she was once in a work and child care crisis she thought, “This shouldn’t be this hard.” It shouldn’t -- but it usually is. Smart employers need to understand that we will give them more if we are allowed to take the time we need to manage our lives. It’s common sense. I’ll close with this comment from Lisa Belkin’s New York Times column. Does this sound like your workplace? Or do you have flexibility?

Ninety percent of my work could be done remotely if it were acceptable at my company. But face time is still important here. We use Web conferencing all the time to talk to employees in other offices, so why can't we use them to conference wherever we are? Currently they get 8 hours of work out of me because it is 50 min commute (5 min to drop at daycare) - work - 45 min commute timed to get there before daycare closes.

How great would it be to do 5 min walk - work - 5 min walk back to home office?

Morra Aarons-Mele

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