There’s no doubt in my mind that the universe has a sense of humor. A couple of months ago, I solemnly swore that I would 100% disconnect from work when we went on vacation during my children’s Spring Break. No email (if at all possible), no twitter, no blogging—nothing but focused time with my family.
Then, as if to test the limits of my resolve, The White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility was scheduled smack dab in the middle of my vacation last week! Let’s just say that last Wednesday, it was all I could do not to sneak a glimpse at the live feed on The White House website. But I resisted and am now catching up on all that transpired at this remarkable event.
I’ve read the Council of Economic Advisers “Work-Life Balance and the Economics of Workplace Flexibility” report as well as a number of blog posts about the forum written by participants, many of whom are colleagues I greatly admire. Here are links to some of my favorites:
- “Is Making the Business Case for Workplace Flexibility Fading Into History,” and “The Day After the White House Forum,” by Ellen Galinsky, President of Families and Work Institute, HuffingtonPost.com
- “White House Launches Push for Workplace Flexibility,” by Dan Froomkin, HuffingtonPost.com
- “The First Couple and a New Era of Workplace Flexibility” by Stew Friedman, Wharton Business School, on HBR.com
- “White House Forum Gives Workplace Flexibility New Hope,” by Marci Pitt-Catsouphes, Director of the Center for Aging and Work at Boston College
- “Flexibility Among the Cherry Blossoms”,” by Kathie Lingle, Executive Director of the Alliance for Work-Life Progress on WorldatWork.org
My takeaways are as follows…
Thank you to the First Family and The White House for an important symbolic boost for flexibility. I agree with Wharton’s Stew Friedman when he says this is a, “Symbolic moment that signified, at last, a new era in which we are really talking and thinking differently about work and the relationship with the rest of our lives.” Symbolism is a powerful driver of any broad change initiative. And it spoke volumes to have the leader of the free world stand up, with his professional wife, in The White House and say, “this is important.”
Job well done, my esteemed work+life industry colleagues. Job well done. Unless you’ve been in the work+life field from more than a decade, and had an opportunity to meet and talk with some of the pioneers who started this movement from scratch, you might not appreciate what a full circle moment this event was for many of the participants in the Forum. Trust me, none of them would have imagined that someday they would be at The White House. But everyday, day-in-and-day-out they forged ahead. Let me take this opportunity to applaud them all and to acknowledge how very much they all deserve this victory.
Now, where do we go from here with flexibility? No doubt the White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility was a mountain top moment that deserves one more, “Hooray!” and a little victory dance. But everyone will agree that there’s still a great deal of work to do before flexibility in how, when and where work is done and life is managed is an integral part of every business’ operating model, and every employee’s day-to-day reality. Here are some next steps that I’d like to see:
- Make the “why” for flexibility a more integral part of the 21st Century business and life strategy conversation: I agree with many in my field that we have more than made the business case that flexibility increases commitment, reduces absenteeism, increases productivity, increases engagement and productivity and, in turn, increases profit. And we’ve done it over and over again. The challenge now is to move the primary conversation about these impacts beyond the sphere of women, children and families. Not that they aren’t important (I am a woman, I have children and a family), but we need to make this about everyone: from the CEO to the low wage, hourly worker trying to go back to school, the person working part-time instead of retiring, or someone who needs flexibility to work with chronic illness. For business, it’s about a smart, flexible, global operating model for rapidly responding to opportunities and challenges (and here).
- Expand beyond “why” to exploring “how” does meaningful, sustainable, real, change happen: I can remember as if it was yesterday sitting in the big conference room at Families and Work Institute where I was a Senior Research Associate, and Arlene Johnson, one the the brilliant work-life pioneers I’ve had the privilege to learn from, said, “I’m now interested in understanding how change happens.” This was probably around 1996 or 1997, but it was as if a light bulb went off and I remember thinking, “She is 100% right. It’s not good enough to just say ‘why’ you need to know ‘how’.” From that moment, I turned my attention to “how” to manage and drive change related to flexibility within organizations and in individuals’ work+life fit reality. I blogged about the need to expand beyond the “why” to “how” earlier last year. More than a decade later, we’ve made some terrific inroads, but we have a long way to go before flexibility is a meaningful part of every operating model and every person’s work+life fit. (Fun “encore career” fact: After retiring from the work+life field, Arlene Johnson recently was elected the mayor of Livingston, New Jersey!).
- Shift from “workplace” flexibility to “work+life” flexibility,” and from “formal flexible work arrangements” to “day-to-day and formal flexibility”: I know I can get crazy about the language, but that’s only because I know that language matters in terms of driving change. Yes, the traditional language used to describe flexibility in how, when and where work is done had been workplace flexibility. And, yes, the primary focus of policymakers has been on formal flexible work arrangements. But, the reality is that for flexibility in work and career to succeed, we need to consider what’s happening in life outside of work and visa versa. Work and life in today’s world are one in the same. The concept of “workplace” flexibility infers a separation and a lack of a reciprocity. Also, the traditional, one-size-fits-all, rigid formal flexible work arrangements are outdated. We need a process-based flexibility strategy that supports both day-to-day and formal changes in how, when and where work is done and life is managed that are tailored to the person, the work, and the business. As was stated loud and clear at the Forum, “One size doesn’t fit all.” The fairness and consistency is in access to the same process, not in the guarantee of a particular type of flexibility (I recognize the unique challenges of low-wage workers but my experience has been that if they are a valued, acknowledged part of the flexibility strategy process, amazing win-win solutions emerge).
- Prepare employees to do their part in the development and implementation of work+life flexibility: Managers must buy into and be trained and incentivized to support flexibility in their business units. Absolutely. However, each individual plays a critical role as well. It needs to be a win-win partnership where employees know what they need to do to meet the manager and their team halfway to make flexibility work for everyone. In fact, one of the main complaints I hear from managers is that employees either look to them to come up with the solution (and they can’t) or they propose an arrangement that makes absolutely no sense for their jobs. Flexibly managing your work+life fit in partnership with your employer is a critical skill set everyone needs to have for flexibility to succeed. Most people don’t have a clue what to do. It’s why I wrote my book, “Work+Life:Finding the Fit That’s Right for You” (Riverhead, 2005) five years ago. That process is now an integral part of every flexibility strategy initiative we develop for clients. For a preview, check out the “Work+Life Fit in 5 Days” series I created earlier this year.
What do you think were the most important outcomes of the Forum? What should our next steps be? I look forward to continuing to move the needle on this very important subject. And in the coming months, you will hear more from us about these and other “next steps” for taking strategic flexibility to the next level. But, again, let’s just take a moment and say “Thank you First Family and the White House!” Onward…