By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
Last week U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama opened the White House’s conference on workplace flexibility, a topic near and dear to her heart. She said, “for many years before coming to Washington, I was a working mother, doing my best to juggle the demands of my job with the needs of my family, with a husband who has crazy ideas.”
She told the story of her last job interview before moving to Washington – she was unable to find a babysitter for her daughter, so ended up having to take her along to the interview. The interviewer was understanding, and she got the job. But, she said, she was lucky – many women wouldn’t have had such good fortune.
The conference, hosted by the Obamas, coincided with the release of a new report by the Executive Office of the President Council of Economic Advisers, “Work-Life Balance and the Economics of Workplace Flexibility” [PDF]. The report makes an economic argument for flexible work programs, noting that there are many challenges to instituting such programs – not the least of which is a lack of facts about their actual costs and related benefits.
The Glass Hammer talked with workplace flexibility expert and co-founder of FlexPaths Meryl Rosenthal on why women can benefit from flexible work arrangements, and how they can encourage flexible work programs in their office.
Challenge: Getting the Facts Straight
Rosenthal, a twenty year veteran of the financial services and insurance industries, explained, “This is something that everyone has to deal with at some point. You hit a life stage, and there’s no script to follow.” Whether women have children at home, a parent to care for, personal illness, or personal aspiration like running a marathon, they will need to “recalibrate” their work situation at some point in their lives. So, according to Rosenthal, it’s best to be prepared. “It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when. Women should not risk falling off the career track by not handling these work/life issues effectively. And, make no mistake, there are different issues for those who work flexibly and those who manage flexible work teams.”
Many businesses are either unprepared or not maximizing flexible work programs – and this can be a major barrier to individuals looking to set up such programs at their companies, or access programs already in place. Rosenthal explained that women who want to champion this cause at their company need to arm themselves with the facts. “Have a compelling business case clearly prepared. This is far more than an individual work/life matter; perpetuating these programs is fundamental to the viability and growth of all businesses. ”
The Executive Office report is a great place to locate statistics and facts to bring to the table. As the report says:
“Almost one-third of firms cite costs or limited funds as obstacles to implementing workplace flexibility arrangements. However, the benefits of adopting such management practices can outweigh the costs by reducing absenteeism, lowering turnover, improving the health of workers, and increasing productivity.”
Rosenthal explained, “Companies are realizing that flexible work arrangements are more and more integral to their business.” Besides the benefits listed above, flexibility is also a means to an end for other key business initiatives such as mitigating risk, reducing real estate costs, managing business continuity planning, and accessing green benefits as well.
Additionally, many companies, especially in financial services, are working harder to keep women connected during life issues. Rosenthal said, “This is an essential tool for keeping women in the pipeline.”
Raising the Issue – Your Action Plan
“Because of the economy, people are a little less likely to bring this up – they want to be viewed as serious employees, and put in the face time. There is a hesitation to go it alone – but companies are starting to step up and communicate,” Rosenthal said. “It really does have to come from the top.” The companies with the most successful flexible work programs are the ones in which, she explained, “senior executives walk the talk and show how it can work.”
Taking the flex work issue to the top means connecting it to business success. First, Rosenthal said, “have the information about your company’s current policies – both formal and informal.” Next, “be able to talk about why it’s good for your business, your department, and your manager.” She explained that the best tactic is to find that one topic your company is focused on and show how flexwork can help.
For example, if your firm is all about “green,” get some hard numbers on how working from home can cut back on energy use at the office. “What is the business driver and how can flex help?” explained Rosenthal. “Make it a win-win.”
And third, she said, “Position it so it’s not all or nothing.” If this is a new program, offer to champion a pilot or trial program. “It will need to be tweaked. Approach this as a journey,” she said. “We at FlexPaths see companies ‘jumpstart’ their efforts and then reassess based upon where the traction is, what training and/or change management programs may be required. It gets exciting as companies realize that this topic resonates across generations and workforce programs such as alumni networks, disability/special needs and phased retirement programs” she said.
Finally, Rosenthal said, “Flexwork really is expected in this day and age. In every company it’s happening, whether formally or informally. This is just the workforce of the future – there are very few people who just work nine to five.”
She continued, “The onus is on companies to make this work, but employees have to hold up their end of the bargain as well.”