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Why I’m (Starting) to Trust the Government’s Work+Life Bully Pulpit

Periodically, I contextualize my opinions with “Maybe it’s my background as a banker and an MBA but…” because as much as I’m open-minded to and appreciate different perspectives, I’m still a businessperson at heart.  It’s important for me to acknowledge that fact, because it’s from this perspective that I’ve historically maintained a wary, arm’s length relationship with public policy solutions to work+life challenges.

Periodically, I contextualize my opinions with “Maybe it’s my background as a banker and an MBA but…” because as much as I’m open-minded to and appreciate different perspectives, I’m still a businessperson at heart.  It’s important for me to acknowledge that fact, because it’s from this perspective that I’ve historically maintained a wary, arm’s length relationship with public policy solutions to work+life challenges.

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My wariness stems from the 15 years I’ve worked with real companies, managers and employees developing and implementing work+life strategies.  I’ve learned that flexibility in how, when and where work is done and life is managed is the flagship solution that everyone needs.  It’s part of and enabled by a package of other direct supports such as paid time off, leaves, dependent care, etc. This experience has shown me, time and again, that the best work+life strategies have the following characteristics:

  • They are not one-size-fits-all.  They are tailored to the unique realities of the business and the people who work there.  Those (sometimes tough) business realities must be acknowledged for the solutions proposed to have credibility and staying power.
  • They are process, not policy-based which makes them flexible enough to adapt and evolve with the changing realities of the business and the people who work there.
  • They are built on a strong employee-employer partnership, not from the top-down.  The employer/manager creates the space within which innovative work+life solutions are crafted as part of the day-to-day operating model.  And employees are prepared and know what they need to do to meet the company halfway.
  • They achieve both business and personal work+life fit objectives.  The employer understands how to apply the same flexibility that helps individual employees manage their work+life fit to achieve other business objectives such as resource cost management (eg. labor, real estate, technology, and health care), global client service, sustainability, disaster preparedness, working better and smarter, etc.

For quite a while, these characteristics of success struck me as antithetical to the mandate-based approach of public policy. Therefore, I tended not to look to the public sector for the leadership that I thought would promote and advance truly effective work+life strategies.  That is until the Obama candidacy and then presidency.

Listening to the administration’s statements and watching its actions, I began to think maybe the public sector could provide that extra “oomph” of support to move the work+life agenda forward.  They seemed interested in building upon the success within the private sector, while creating a legislative environment that reflects the reality of a 21st Century global economy.

To date, my new faith has been consistently rewarded, first, by the historic White House Flexibility Forum.  And most recently, by the conversation between the public and private sector leaders I participated in at the recent Corporate Voices (CV) meeting in Washington D.C.

For those not familiar with the work of Corporate Voices, spend some time on their site.  As its VP of Business and Government Relations, Tiffany Westover-Kernan explains, from its base of private and public sector expertise in work+life strategy Corporate Voices “is committed to playing the role of intermediary.”  It brings together the best, most innovative work+life policy and practices from the private sector and the agenda of legislators to catalyze solutions that benefit all levels of employees and the day-to-day success of employers.

From what I heard at the CV meeting, with the passage of health care reform, the attention has turned both in the White House and legislatively to promoting and supporting (not outright mandating) all types of flexibility.  In other words, the government has decided to use its large bully pulpit to drive change in a way that encourages the most innovative approaches from the private sector, without undermining them.  It’s also looking at how to create a regulatory environment and provide technical support that addresses the 21st Century challenges facing employees and employers. 

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Specific examples from the Corporate Voices meeting include:

Corporate Voices’ “Statement of Support for Expanding Workplace Flexibility.” According to Ms. Kernan, this public declaration of support for well-implemented flexibility which has been recognized by the White House, “is an opportunity for corporate senior leaders to sign up and be seen in the forefront on these issues.”   The goal is for their example to catalyze change and create a database of recognized, best practice companies.   To learn more about the statement, contact Tiffany Westover-Kernan at Corporate Voices directly.

The Honorable Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Washington State) spoke of the bi-partisan recognition that federal laws need to reflect today’s work+life reality, “We need to bring them into the 21st Century.  We can’t take for granted that innovation will continue otherwise.”

Martha Coven, Special Assistant to the President for Mobility and Opportunity, The White House Domestic Policy Council, spoke of, “Smart workplace flexibility strategies.”  And the need for the government to “Lead by example.”  She outlined various initiatives underway within the government workforce to test which approaches to flexibility work best, and she reiterated the commitment to provide access to resources, tools and technical assistance to employers.

Jeff Cruz, Senior Policy Advisor to the Senate Special Committee on Aging, works with six Senators who have created a subcommittee on flexibility.  He talked about the Older Workers Opportunity Act which gives employers a tax credit for hiring an older worker part-time with benefits. 

Scott Cheney, Staff Director for the Senate HELP Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety, discussed how they are studying layoff aversion strategies such as promoting workshare programs through local economic development organizations.

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Some will argue, that’s not enough, “We need paid leave and sick days. We need child and elder care, now!”  I agree, but in our current economic climate of high unemployment and escalating budget deficits, what’s realistic?  A well-developed, well-executed flexibility strategy is not everything, but it goes a long way.  The ability to shift your hours or work from home addresses many of the problems individuals face when the sitter doesn’t show up, your child gets sick or your car breaks down without mandated days off.  And they are paid.

I’m encouraged that even in this economically challenging time the Administration and Congress have kept the need for new and better ways of working and managing our lives on the radar screen.  As Ms. Kernan from Corporate Voices noted, “It makes a difference that you have two people in the White House who get this from a very real, personal level.”  And it’s making me begin to believe that there are now three smart, savvy, players in this partnership for change—business, people…and the government.

These are surprising words coming from a former public policy cynic.  Surprising indeed.  Stay tuned.  What do you think?   Is the government doing enough, too little or too much?  And is government targeting its where it should be given our current economic reality? 

Want more?  Join me on Thursday 5/20 at 8:00 pm ET on Blog Talk Radio’s HR Happy Hour with host Steve Boese as we discuss “Making Work/Life Work”.  Also, follow me on Twitter @caliyost and on my Work+Life Fit (Not Balance) blog.