Yesterday, as I listened to the opening of the Forum on Workplace Flexibility at the White House, I wrote a note to myself: "They are singing our song." All around me were the words that those of us who have worked on issues of work and family life have used for years.
Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President, opened the Forum by saying that we need to build a 21st Century Workplace that meets the needs of the 21st workforce.
At that point, I turned to find Kathleen Christensen of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in the room and smile at her. She has been the visionary funder of much of the research on America's working families for the past fifteen years, funding what now exceeds 400 projects. Close to a decade ago, she began reporting on a trend in the research -- that many of the studies were revealing a mismatch between the workplace and the workforce. In other words, the workplace has not been meeting the needs of the workforce.
In the traditional family, as she has pointed out, there were two adults and two jobs. One of the jobs was being the economic provider for the family (typically the man) and the other was being the nurturer of the family (typically the woman). However, as we have moved to an economy where both men and women work, there are still the same family responsibilities -- just less time to meet them. Kathleen Christensen has talked about the toll this mismatch has taken on families, noting that we now have a vocabulary to portray these feelings--"the time bind" and the "time squeeze."
Yesterday at the Forum, President Obama described families as "juggler families," where life is a series of "high wire acts."
So if a mismatch is the problem, what are the solutions? And that was exactly the question Kathleen Christensen began to ask in 2001. She turned her funding to focus on solutions. Given the findings from decades of studies, a key solution is giving more employees access to "workplace flexibility." In 2003, she declared that her goal was to make flexibility the standard way of working in America.
Yesterday, the director of the Office of Personnel was, in essence, singing the same song. His words are equally memorable. He said that workplace flexibility is the new email: some employers have it. But, he added, that those employers who don't have flexibility now, will have it soon!
The organization I head, Families and Work Institute, was among the organizations that the Sloan Foundation funded, beginning in 2003 in their new focus on solutions. Our focus is on employers while another grant to Georgetown Law Center, Workforce 2010, focuses on public policy.
We first turned to the results of our nationally representative studies of the U.S. workforce and workplace. Because our studies are ongoing, we can track the ways that work and workers have changed over time. One of our first papers in 2004 looked at the fact that this is not your grandmothers' or grandfathers' or even your mothers' or fathers' workforce and workplace. Drawing on the terms IBM was using at the time, we argued for creating a new normal.
Yesterday, the breakout sessions at the Forum were focused on defining the "new normal" by looking at what works and what doesn't work.
Our studies have been asking the same question--what works and what doesn't work? We began by looking at our data. As we have pursued these questions, we have found that there are kinds of jobs that benefit employers because they are linked to higher job satisfaction, high job engagement and better retention. These same kinds of jobs also benefit employees because they are linked with better health and less conflict in managing work and personal or family life. These kind of jobs are jobs that provide economic security, learning opportunities, job autonomy, respect, the support of supervisors, and workplace flexibility.
We named our Sloan funded project When Work Works, because work has to work for employees and employers, and for communities. As a joint project of Families and Work Institute, the Institute for a Competitive Workforce, and the Twiga Foundation, we are now in 26 communities and five states. Spearheaded by local coalitions of leaders, When Work Works provides education, outreach, and awards for flexible and effective workplaces, based on national norms and on employer and employee surveys. Last year, almost 1000 companies applied for these awards.
Yesterday, numerous speakers talked about making work "work." At the end of the day, I received an email from a business colleague who had watched the Forum online. She wrote:
I am so psyched that the President of the United States just reiterated the words of the message that we have been promoting for the past 30 years! I am glad to be alive to see this day! And I do believe we will live to see flexibility truly become the norm in all workplaces.
Yes, they are our words, but there's more. In his closing remarks at the Forum, President Obama said that workplace flexibility helps families, helps businesses, and helps the economy. But he went on to talk about how workplace flexibility reflects our priorities as a society and our number one priority is caring for our families.
Among the other emails I received last night, a colleague wrote:
I can't express how perfect it all seemed. A dream come true... "workplace flexibility ultimately reflects our priorities as a society" from the President of the United States!!
They are singing our songs, but they have added to the tunes and to the words. So they and we are singing new songs--songs where the words have greater reach and more resonance.
But these are words. And as we all know, words aren't action. Now the real the real hard works begins--translating these songs into action!
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