Is Making the Business Case for Workplace Flexibility Fading Into History?

At the White House Forum, a discussion on the "Benefits of Workplace Flexibility" quickly moved beyond the discussion of how flexibility affects the bottom line.
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After keynotes by Senior Advisor to the President, Valerie Jarrett and the First Lady Michelle Obama and a panel moderated by Claire Shipman, the Senior National Correspondent from Good Morning America, each of us was assigned to one of five breakout groups to discuss workplace flexibility.

Given the stated goal of my group -- the "Benefits of Workplace Flexibility" led by the Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, Christina Romer -- it was breathtaking how quickly my group moved beyond the discussion of how flexibility affects the bottom line.

Yes, several of the business representatives made the point that there are business benefits to providing flexibility. For example, James Turley, CEO of Ernst & Young, said that his company measures the cost of turnover and employee engagement. Engagement, he said, is a particularly important metric because they have been able to see direct links between more engaged employees and better client service. Both metrics have improved since E&Y began its "People First" initiative that includes policies to provide flexible work arrangements and more importantly, a culture of flexibility, where there is, in Turley's words, "trust" among people so that they are able to bring up their work, personal or family issues, real "respect" for each other's needs, and "teaming" so that business groups can solve the work and family problems they face. When pushed about whether he knew for sure that flexibility was directly linked to better profitability, he stated he knew that creating greater flexibility had affected E &Y's bottom line.

But does the business case matter, he asked. There are legions of studies linking more diverse leadership at the top of organizations to better business results, but as Turley said, there has been little progress in increasing the diversity of leadership in corporations.

Shelley MacDermid Wasdworth of Purdue University aptly summarized this conversational thread by stating that it's a fallacy to think that "doing nothing costs nothing."

At that point, many of the participants in my group began to look over a special new report from the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), entitled Work-Life Balance and the Economics of Workplace Flexibility. With a group as prestigious as the CEA reviewing the research on the return on investment in providing workplace flexibility, perhaps all of the business case arguments had been presented, contested, and defended in this impressive report with a green cover.

The real passion in my group was in suggesting solutions. Does moving beyond the return on investment so quickly mean that the need to prove the business benefits of workplace flexibility is fading into history? That's not clear -- perhaps the group invited to this Forum was more likely to include members of the choir, the true believers in flexibility rather than the doubting Thomases and Thomasinas.

Early on in the group discussion, several members suggested specific solutions. One was to stop assuming that "presence at work (or face time) equals productivity" and to stop creating flexible work arrangements, but rather focus on achieving work results only. Another solution was allowing all new mothers to bring their babies to work for the first six months of their lives.

The group jumped into a pro and con discussion of these specific solutions with a great deal of fervor. Because individuals around the table represented the diversity of those involved in issues of workplace flexibility -- from CEOs and more senior business executive to representatives of small business and of the lower-wage workforce -- the discussion was quite heated at times: this would or this would never work in my workplace.

That's when I spoke up, saying that if I have learned anything in my three decades of research on these issues, it's that "one size does not fit all when it comes to innovative policies." Workplaces have different kind of work (a baby in a plant producing dangerous chemical might not work), jobs are different, and employees' needs are different.

Although the group was expressly convened to talk about business practices (not public policy), there was the expected tension about whether there should be mandates, legislating workplace flexibility. Some of the business leaders took the "let the market prevail" stance. Flexibility for them is a value added, something that differentiates them from other companies in attracting and retaining employees. They don't care if others don't adopt it. Let those companies fail, one leader said. That's better for my company.

At that point in the conversation, some of the representatives of lower-wage workers began to talk about the obstacles their employees faced in getting what more advantaged employees might consider rights -- the right to stay home with a newborn, or a sick child, or a dying parent. Even if companies that denied employees time off policies actually failed, they wouldn't go out of business, these members of our group argued. The simply would do as well as more enlightened companies. There will always be better and worse employers (and bosses).

At that point in the conversation, there was a slight shift. Some of the business leaders began to consider whether, as I would put it, there is a one size fits all need to define a floor of flexibility by providing sick days or leaves, and better yet, providing some pay for these leaves. One business leader even said that a floor of flexibility might be necessary as long as it didn't inhibit his company's ability to be innovative.

At the end of the breakout group, we were asked for concluding thoughts. One had occurred to me as I listened to the shifts in the conversation that had occurred in our group by hearing each other's points of view and real life experiences. So my concluding remark was that in addition to realizing that one size does and does not fit all, we need "perspective leadership" training. I know from my studies in child and adult development that the ability to understand someone else's point of view helps both children and adults thrive. Perhaps companies and schools should provide this kind of training. And that comment earned me a hand bump from Jim Turley who said, I agree!

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