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"A Woman's Nation" Demands Workplace Flexibility

When most families no longer have a person at home dealing with life's ordinary needs, there is often a serious mismatch between the workplace and the day-to-day realities of working families.
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This week, Maria Shriver released a report on the status of women in America - and on the radical transformations that have taken place in our society as a result of women's entrance into the workforce. "The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Changes Everything" examines the tremendous impact women have in the 21st century economy. But it also reveals the implications of women's changing economic status on the social and cultural institutions that define us - from government, business, and faith-based organizations to our individual communities and families.

The Shriver Report's release is coinciding with National Work & Family Month - presenting us with an opportunity to look more critically at how workforce trends impact our personal and family lives. The Shriver Report begins by looking at one dramatic change: women now represent half of the American workforce. But as National Work & Family Month reminds us, the normative structures of our workplaces have failed to catch up with the full ramifications of that demographic shift, as well as others.

In an era when most families no longer have a person at home who can be tasked with dealing with ordinary life needs, there is often a serious mismatch between the workplace and the day-to-day realities of working families. The result is that many American workers struggle to succeed at work while meeting the demands of family - and a significant majority feel they fail to achieve either one very well.

At Workplace Flexibility 2010, we recognize that this issue impacts both women and men who are handling serious caregiving responsibilities - be it caring for young children, elderly parents or other loved ones, or both. More importantly, it is not just caregiving that causes employees to feel an acute strain between work demands and personal needs - it is felt by those who are experiencing their own serious or chronic health condition or disability; those who have lost much of their retirement savings and need to continue working; those who are facing the challenges of military deployment; those who are trying to enhance their skills with education while still holding a job; those who want to volunteer with their faith-based or community organizations, and beyond.

The struggle to balance work and home life is experienced by millions of working Americans across professions and income levels. Yet it is almost always painted as an individual problem that each employee or family must face alone.

We believe there must be a broader structural response - a societal movement toward policies and practices that allow employees to succeed in the workplace while also fulfilling serious personal and family responsibilities. We believe now is the time to develop a comprehensive workplace flexibility policy that meets the needs of both employers and families.

Workplace flexibility - an approach that promotes control and predictability over the scheduling of work hours, and includes options ranging from compressed workweeks and telecommuting to phased retirement and short and extended time off - can help employees meet the often competing demands of work and personal life. And it can work well across industries, professions and income levels, and in the public sector, in union settings, and in corporate America.

Increasing access to flexibility does more than support individual families. Workplace flexibility has real economic and community development benefits. Data suggests that flexibility significantly boosts productivity by keeping workers healthier - and that it cuts costs for employers by reducing turnover rates. Companies and municipalities across the country are using flexibility to save on real estate and energy costs and to ease traffic congestion, thereby reducing air pollution. Workplace flexibility not only results in better business; we believe it will create healthier communities - and help lay the foundation for a stronger, more resilient economy.

For many years, there has been a serious lack of cooperative, bipartisan leadership on issues at the intersection of work and family. But recently, we have seen a renewed interest in Washington on the need for increased workplace flexibility - and opportunities for dialogue that are moving us away from longstanding political stalemates around labor and employment law and toward solutions that make a difference for both employers and employees.

On Capitol Hill, a bipartisan Senate Study Group was formed by six Senators - three Democrats and three Republicans - who were interested in taking a closer look at the data on the need for workplace flexibility and in discussing potential bipartisan solutions that can address that need. That bipartisan study group has attracted Capitol Hill staffers from across committee jurisdiction and party. A National Advisory Commission on Workplace Flexibility, convened by Workplace Flexibility 2010, attracted high-level former political players from both parties and helped shape a comprehensive report on flexible work arrangements. Finally, this week, a diverse group of organizations, ranging from the United States Chamber of Commerce to the National Military Families Association to the National Partnership for Women and Families, will tell Hill staffers why flexible work arrangements matter to their constituencies.

Workplace flexibility is one of the priorities for the White House Task Force on Middle-Class Working Families and First Lady Michelle Obama's Office. Indeed, at the Corporate Voices for Working Families Annual Meeting in May, Mrs. Obama called for a broad, national conversation on how we can best support working parents - particularly through policies providing sick leave, increased maternity leave, and flexible work arrangements.

Mrs. Obama's call for increased workplace flexibility rings in harmony with Maria Shriver's report. If women - and men, for that matter - are to reach their full potential in the workplace, then workplace structures must evolve to allow them full, meaningful participation in their families and communities. Our hope is that the Shriver Report will help spur a high-level, national conversation on the need to shift the structures of our workplaces to meet the realities facing working families today. Our goal at Workplace Flexibility 2010 is to move that conversation forward - toward common-sense public policy solutions that will weave workplace flexibility into the fabric of the American workplace.