Labor Secretary Hilda Solis opened the National Dialogue on Workplace Flexibility speaking about vast changes in the workforce that have created a variety of urgent needs for workplace flexibility. Those could include a man whose wife is deployed in Afghanistan or a woman caring both for children and for aging parents or workers of all ages trying to juggle employment with education.
Solis added that, with the increase of women in the workforce and the aging of the population, people are feeling the stress of juggling responsibilities at work and at home. According to the Families and Work Institute, the majority of workers say they don’t have enough time with their children (75%) their partners (63%) or for themselves (60%).
At the event, Family Values @ Work Consortium and the National Partnership for Women & Families released a new report summarizing the experiences of 17 workers interviewed in Dallas two weeks prior to the conference. The report found that employers benefit when workers are able to take time off to deal with sick children, their own illnesses, and other care giving responsibilities without losing pay or risking workplace discipline. While participants understand business constraints, most also believe government policies are important in setting minimum standards for all businesses and creating new workplace norms.
One worker in the report explained: "Happy employees are generally more productive."
Event attendees also heard from a panel of business leaders who described multiple ways their organizations have become flexible — from parents, mothers and fathers, bringing babies to work to partner tracks with reduced hours. The speakers underscored the sound business case for such practices.
Ellen Galinsky, President of the Families and Work Institute, explained findings from a report prepared for the forum: "Those with high access to flexibility are more engaged on the job, have better health, are more satisfied, and less likely to look for a new job."
Owners of a wide variety of businesses, ranging from a 3-person doll shop and 10-person moving company to a firm with nearly 400 lawyers, also echoed that allowing employees to work from home, take off when ill, or help create their own schedules provides savings to businesses through avoiding the costs of replacing employees.
"I have never lost an employee in seven years," said one business owner who offers a range of flexible workplace practices.
"I intended to stay for a year and am going to celebrate my tenth anniversary," said a researcher who valued her firm’s flexible options.
At the same time, a number of workers described the anguish of not having this flexibility.
"You can take off, but you won’t get paid," one worker without flexible or paid sick leave said, "I would love a government-level policy where women and men who have dependents and need to take off could [do so] without having to pay for it."
In a closing keynote, Ted Childs, former vice-president at IBM who now runs his own consulting firm, described work-life integration as critical to success in the globalized marketplace. What’s at stake is "survival," the ability to attract and retain talent. He urged employers to recognize that employees are their greatest asset and to ask, "What is possible?"
Childs also described a meeting with the Tokyo Prime Minister in which a high-ranking female official painted a bleak picture of the country’s low birth rate and need for labor. As a result, in 2009 the government there instituted new public policies, including 14 months extended parental leave. They realized they need workers long-term, said Childs.
The DOL’s Women’s Bureau and Families and Work Institute can help identify best practices, Childs told the audience. "The time for change is always now."
A number of organizations assisted the Women’s Bureau in planning the forum. Families and Work Institute prepared a report on the reality of workplace flexibility among small employers. Rigorous data from nationally representative groups of employers and employees show that less flexibility exists in small organizations than in large ones, but employees in small firms have a more supportive culture of flexibility.
The Family Values @ Work Consortium and the National Partnership for Women & Families report can be viewed here.
The Families and Work Institute report can be viewed here.
The National Partnership for Women & Families is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group dedicated to promoting fairness in the workplace, access to quality health care and policies that help women and men meet the dual demands of work and family. More information is available at www.NationalPartnership.org.