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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  • David Kaiser

    I would like to see something on creating new social infrastructures for remote employees. When you work in an office with other employees, you build social capital, and friendships. This is harder to do when you work from home on a regular basis. Working at a cafe with strangers is better than nothing, but it's still not the same. Co-working, anyone? Meet-up groups for, um, work?

    Also, there is a certain mindset necessary to successfully work from home. Yes, there is no commute and no office chatter to distract you, so you can get a ton of work done. But there is also no one peeking over your shoulder to create accountability, and there may be laundry, dishes, children, cats, and Oprah to distract you. Learning to manage and be accountable to ourselves in this situation is a tremendous gift, and it's one that many people need to cultivate.

    Dave Kaiser
    Executive Coach & CEO

  • judy martin

    I think you really hit the nail on the head by suggesting the lexicon move from workplace to work+life. In 2020 I envision the human element of the equation becoming even more prominent than "work for the sake of work". In our post-modern society, where we're confronted with the ills of the world on a daily basis on the wave of real time technology, how can we help but not become more aware of our "humanness". I think consciousness has to evolve.

    So to me, the conversations on work+life flexibility would happen organically in the hiring process, family members would be involved, a family+work assessment would be in the best interest of the company so the process would not be adversarial. Face time would be measured not by bodily presence, but by presence of mind, soul, and meaningful work ethics that take the larger picture in mind. Work as vocation, could be nothing less than the best work+life fit by mere definition.

  • Phil Montero


    A most excellent article and I honestly couldn't agree with you more! It is clear that this concept and the strategies/philosophies around flexibility in the workplace have been evolving and changing. I have long been a proponent of "work life integration" rather than "balance" as I feel in todays world of work with smartphones, social media, and the web it is highly unlikely that you can completely separate the two which is what I believe using the term "balance" seems to conjure up. I like the idea of Work + Life Flexibility as I believe it speaks to this same idea.

    As an entrepreneur and work at home Dad I say HUZZAH to what you and Leanne Chase often discuss - which is this is not just a Mommy issue - it is an everyone issue and the flexibility has so many benefits tied to it as you mentioned in the bulleted list above.

    Also as Erika Wendt mentioned in her comment - I think another major change is we don't need a special word for people that work from multiple locations or flexwork. I too would hope that by 2020 we can all agree this is just the way we work. It is now the norm for information workers to work from The Anywhere Office as I call it.

    I hope you are correct that companies will share their success stories and flexibility strategies. I strongly believe that for larger companies it is critical that this is not approached ad-hoc but with a deliberate plan so the sharing of ideas and what worked would benefit everyone.

    I would also like to see the government become a more shining example of embracing more flexible work arrangements. They are making strides but management resistance still slows progress.

    I say be gone dinosaurs . . . we are knocking on the door of 2011 . . . we may not have flying cars but we sure can embrace flexible work!

    Phil Montero (@philmontero)
    Founder, TheAnywhereOffice.com

  • Carol Fishman Cohen

    In 2020 there will no longer be a stigma associated with taking an intentional career break for eldercare, childcare, or other reasons. Both men and women will include career breaks as part of their career paths. Women will be asked when they are pregnant, are you taking a shorter maternity leave, or are you planning a longer career break and then relaunch your career? Companies will routinely hire people with a paid work gap on their resume, and candidates will include strategic volunteer work on their resumes alongside their paid work with no issues raised by the interviewer. There will be so many return to work success stories that no one will collect them anymore - they will be so commonplace, no one will find it interesting to collect them.

    Carol Fishman Cohen
    Co-founder, iRelaunch
    Co-author, Back on the Career Track

  • Leanne Chase

    Cali -

    Great article. Yes - we need flexibility in our entire lives not just the workplace. Yes - everyone needs/wants flexibility and work + Life fit. Yes - more male voices are needed...and louder, please! Yes - it is not a right for workers...but a relationship. If that relationship remains symbiotic flex works. If workers take advantage it does not. Yes - legislation is holding us back...the stringent rules surrounding hiring contract workers particularly makes me nuts.

    YES! YES! YES!

    And in the march toward 2020...we work + life fit advocates need to be sure to get the word and the research out there for everyday workers & employers to know, understand and engage more.

    Here's looking forward to the next 10 years. Sign me up!

  • fran melmed

    cali, i want to chime in with an addition to your wish list. by 2020, i'd like to no longer see the many, many articles citing how telecommuting, work+life flexibility and such contribute to our economic prosperity, health and overall happiness because we'd know it to be true-- and we'd be freed up to move to one of the next wishes on your list: sharing *tested* practices that work.


  • kathy kacher

    Looking to the future the gap in higher education will be filled. Anyone pursuing a degree in business will be introduced to the definitions and the methods for designing a flexible work environment that enables individuals to do their very best work. Organizations will also be better prepared to leverage flexibility to help employees improve in their current role, better prepare them for a future role, or both. Individuals who are just joining the workforce will realize that they will most likely be working for 50 years or more in their lifetime and understand that a journey of 50 years cannot be entirely uphill and know that flexibility will work to manage the long road ahead.

  • Erika Wendt

    Great points, Cali (as always!). Your point about the conversation changing from "workplace" flexibility to "work+life" flexibility resonated with me. Similar to this, I would also like to see a disappearance in labels given to employees who are working flexibly (e.g. teleworkers, flexplace, flextime, alternative workspace, workshifting). We don't label people who are in meetings all day or those who spend the majority of their time on the phone or travelling, it's just what they do to get the job done. Thus, flexibility labels would no longer be relevant because...it's just how work is accomplished.

    Count me in for Companies sharing "how" they developed and implemented their unique flexibility strategies.

    Erika @erikawendt

  • Chrysula

    By 2020 I am hoping the research will start to show significantly lower career costs to movement in and out of the work force. As technology improves and workforce participants are more in tune with the need to maintain their skill sets even whilst pursuing other life experiences (chosen or not), the career "hit" they currently take will be no where near as substantial. We will have embraced the notion of the non-linear, non-hierachical career. Perhaps I am thinking closer to 2030 on this one!