Envisioning Work+Life Flexibility in 2020

Raise your hand if you work from home periodically without a second thought? Do you sometimes come in late or leave a little early if you have something you have to take care of outside of work?

Today, many (but still not enough of us) take for granted having flexibility in how, when and where we work. But when I started out as a work+life strategy consultant in the early 1990s, deviations from the standard "in-the-office, five-days-a-week model" were rare. Then things began to change ... .

Celebrating Workplace Flexibility 2010

In 1995, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation saw an emerging trend, and decided to commit their formidable resources to a 15-year initiative called Workplace Flexibility 2010. The goal was "to develop a comprehensive national policy on workplace flexibility."

Last week I gathered with researchers, corporate leaders, public policy experts, government officials, and practitioners to mark the final culmination of this multi-year, multi-faceted effort. There was much to celebrate (for excellent overviews of the event, here, here, here, here, and here. And #focusonflex and @RexFlexibility on Twitter)

But I was struck most by a remark made at the beginning of the conference by Kathleen Christensen, program director from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation who oversaw Workplace Flexibility 2010. She said, "This event isn't the end, but the beginning of an ongoing conversation."

With that call to action in mind, I spent most of the meeting thinking about the future, and imaging what a similar gathering might look like in 2020. Here's what I came up with ...

Envisioning Work+Life Flexibility 2020

The name of the event would have changed from "workplace" flexibility to "work+life" flexibility because of over the last ten years we'd have recognized that work and life are one and the same, not separate. Therefore, having flexibility at work requires a degree of complementary flexibility in life. Questions about what that reciprocal relationship looks like and how it is managed day-to-day and across careers are discussed.

There would be as many men at the event as there are women, because we would have finally realized that having the flexibility to manage work and life is an issue for all of us. Not just families and women (as Leanne Chase also noted in her post-event blog). And by making it about everyone, we would be well on our way to eliminating the painful motherhood penalty in the workplace, and making men more comfortable being full partners in the work+life discussion.

The academic research presented would also include studies that expand the focus on the business applications and benefits of flexibility:

  • How to change corporate governance standards to support the investment in people-based innovations such as work+life flexibility, that don't show direct, bottom-line benefit in the short-term but the long-term.
  • How flexibility impacts disaster preparedness and business continuity.
  • How flexibility improves customer service and coordination of global client coverage.
  • How flexibility allows companies to sustain a cohesive, flexible workforce and minimize layoffs during economic peaks and downturns.
  • How flexibility contributes to environmental sustainability.

We would discuss what skills individuals need to be good partners with their employers to ensure that flexibility considers their personal needs as well as the needs of the business. Having recognized that companies can't give individuals the answer to their work+life fit needs, people have to learn how to present solutions to their employers and then make them work day-to-day and at major career transitions.

Companies would share "how" they developed and implemented their unique flexibility strategies that are tailored to the needs and realities of their particular business. Over the past decade, it would have become clear that "one-size-fits-all" off—the-shelf programs don't work. Therefore, the discussion would focus on how to create a shared vision of what flexibility means to the business, why it's important, how to increase readiness and buy-in at all levels and then how to successfully implement and revise over time as business realities change.

Lobbyists for corporate interests and advocacy groups would discuss how they were able to finally compromise on legislation that guaranteed a basic level of paid sick leave and paid time off for care giving. (Okay, this is the part of the vision in which I am the least confident but the most hopeful).

Legislators would discuss how they worked across party lines to revamp outdated laws that limited work+life and career flexibility. Successes would include updating the Fair Labor Standards act to allow more hourly workers access to flexibility. The tax code would have been overhauled to ensure that out of state telecommuters weren't double taxed. And the Social Security would be revised not to penalize older employees who wanted to continue to work.

That's as far as I got. Now, it's your turn. Look into the future to 2020 and envision an inter-disciplinary gathering to advance flexibility in how, when and where is done. Who would be there? What's being discussed?

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