Like many others who attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, I am a trend hunter. What are people talking about? What’s hot? Are people optimistic? What’s high on the agenda?
To my surprise this year, workplace flexibility kept popping up in places that I didn’t go looking for it. This isn’t the first WEF with flexibility on the agenda, but what seemed to be different this year was who was talking about it and why.
Traditionally, conversations about workplace flexibility have been led by organizations and champions, or at events focused on gender equality—in other words, women’s advocates.
Flexibility, while always framed as "good for business," was primarily promoted by those who cared about workplace fairness, inclusion, and women’s power.
This year was different.
A session led by Geraldine Chin Moody, a Young Global Leader and board member of UN Women Australia, on "Flexperts"-– the idea of using a technology platform to match business needs with the bits of time "stay-at-home" mothers may have to flex their business skills and expertise on their own schedule-–drew an equal balance of men and women attendees.
Why were the men there? Many came because they see the need in their own workplace. Several took part because they see good business opportunities in tapping unused intellectual and business capital. But most were there because they married professionals who have chosen to stay at home while their children are young and who are struggling with not working, not feeling intellectually engaged, or how to reenter the workforce.
This isn’t the first time that I have encountered the concerned, loving husband ardently trying to figure out solutions with (not for) his wife to get her reengaged in the workforce in a way that strengthens their family. Many confess to major marital challenges because their wives crave the workforce but also don’t want to "miss" raising their small children. (The dual, full-time working household has its challenges as well. I hear about and live it daily.)
But their call and curiosity wasn’t just for the moms to get to work; it was for many of them to work less as well. Not to just share the parental and home duties, but for them to get out of the grind of the 24/7 work-life many (most?) of us endure.
I first experienced this pushback on workplace madness when I posted on Facebook a 2009 cover from The Economist of Rosie The Riveter saying "We did it!", a reference to the fact that women crossed the 50% threshold and became the majority of the American workforce. Men’s overwhelming response online and off was "you can have it."
Since then I have heard from men far and wide that they want a different workplace. They want flexibility not just for their wives or the women in their lives but for themselves—not just as parents, but also as human beings.
This bears out in a recent man-on-the-street interview series we did at Fenton, where we asked Gen-Y workers about workplace flexibility. All of them wanted it. All of them saw their productivity going up if they had it.
This is confirmed by a 2012 survey by Cisco of 2,800 college students and young professionals under 30 in 14 countries. One out of three respondents said he/she would prioritize social media freedom, device flexibility, and work mobility over salary in accepting a job offer, and the report also noted there is a high expectation of the employee for the employer to offer a flexible schedule and freedom to work remotely.
• Flex time (up from 66% to 77%);
• Flex place (up from 34% to 63%);
• Choices in managing time (up from 78% to 93%); and
• Daily time off when important needs arise (up from 77% to 87%).
Second, employers have reduced options that allow employees to spend significant amounts of time away from full-time work.
• Moving from part-time to full-time and back again (from 54% to 41%); and
• Flex career options such as career breaks for personal or family responsibilities (from 73% to 52%).
The maximum length of caregiving leaves offered to new fathers following childbirth, new adoptive parents, and employees caring for seriously ill family members has declined since 2005. And, among those employers that provide any pay for disability related to childbirth (58%), far fewer provide full pay, now at 9%, down from 17% in 2005. Also, fewer employers are providing backup, emergency care, or sick care options. It’s also important to note that just because flexibility is offered doesn’t mean it is actually used. Often a supportive flex-work culture doesn’t truly exist and many employees feel penalized or "weak" for using it.
This must change. Not only because it would improve the lives of the workers, but also when properly managed, it would improve the bottom line for the employer.
Another trend we heard loud and clear was the continued rise of the emerging markets. We heard from one large multinational company that they couldn’t hire or retain enough workers in their emerging market stores, warehouses, offices, etc. One reason? Many of these employees are moms who need support with childcare.
But that wasn’t reason alone that the multinational company was paying attention and taking workplace flexibility serious. It realizes that the future workforce is going to want, need, and demand a different definition of work, of how and when it works, and that this issue isn’t limited to gender or reproductive events.
Frankly, I’m relieved by this. I believe that workplace flexibility framed as a women’s issue is either a losing frame or a slow-as-molasses winning one.
And demographics are changing. As we know, in Europe and North America the workforce is staying in the workplace longer for a variety of reasons. The share of Americans 65 and older in the labor force went from 12.1 percent in 1990 to 16.1 percent in 2010, and the increase was larger for women, according to new analysis of census data in January. These workers may require new and different types of workplace flexibility as well.
As soon as men, husbands, CEOs, and HR administrators see workplace flexibility as an imperative for everyone, and for the bottom line, then action will begin to ensue. We’re seeing it already.
Once we don’t only measure the flexibility of women in the workplace, but measure men’s flexibility as well (for all ages), as The Gender Equality Project's soon to be launched EDGECertification (Economic Dividends for Gender Equality) does—the only global gender certification tool—everyone will win.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if workplace flexibility was at the tip of everyone’s tongue this year, but the issue has moved from gendered and novel towards necessary and a solution for the young, old, men, women, parents, and non-parents alike. It was just about smart business and smart living—things that can, and are, co-existing.
—Lisa Witter is partner and Chief Change Officer for Fenton and a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum. Find her on Twitter at @lisamwitter.
[Image: Flickr user Major Clanger]