Think Flexibly/Act Locally: The National Dialogue on Workplace Flexibility Goes on the Road

A lot can happen in a year. Since 2009's National Work and Family Month, we've come a very long way -- and the stage is finally set for workplace flexibility as a national priority, in the year 2010 and beyond.
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A lot can happen in a year. Since 2009's National Work and Family Month, we've come a very long way -- and the stage is finally set for workplace flexibility as a national priority, in the year 2010 and beyond.

In March, the President and First Lady summoned a group of nationally recognized leaders -- including CEOs, academic researchers, advocates and union representatives -- for a groundbreaking discussion on the need to increase flexibility in the American workplace. That day, President Obama shared his belief that workplace flexibility has become,

" issue that affects the well-being of our families and the success of our businesses. It affects the strength of our economy -- whether we'll create the workplaces and jobs of the future that we need to compete in today's global economy."

The president's comments signaled a tremendous evolution in issues at the intersection of work and family. They indicated that it's no longer good enough to let families muddle through this on their own. Indeed, addressing this issue has become a social and economic imperative.

But to really understand the depth of this challenge and the need for flexibility, it's critical that we understand what's happening on the ground -- in workplaces and communities large and small. For meaningful change to happen in the American workplace, we need the engagement and commitment of business and civic leaders and employees and employers from across the country.

That on-the-ground engagement and commitment is building quickly. Last week, far from DC and in the heart of Texas, a group of small business owners, managers, and employees -- as well as advocates, researchers and union leaders -- gathered on the Dallas campus of Southern Methodist University to carry on the conversation that began at the White House. They were the first to participate in the "National Dialogue on Workplace Flexibility" series being organized and hosted by the Department of Labor in cities across the country.

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis kicked off the event, expressing how critical these issues have become. As she said in her recent editorial, "June Cleaver, Meet Juana Solis,"

"Workplace flexibility initiatives aren't niceties; they're necessities for working families. For employers, they aren't just the right thing to do; they're the smart thing to do."

And then the conversation really began. We heard the latest data on small business from the Families and Work Institute -- and got to hear from local business leaders on why they use flexibility as a business strategy. Participants engaged each other on best practices for implementing innovative flexibility programs -- particularly within a small business -- and addressed the challenges that come with them. We heard participants asking and answering critical questions such as:

  • What's the best way to train managers so that they understand how flexibility can support their own objectives -- and overall business success?
  • How do you implement flexibility programs that meet the needs of all workers -- particular those on the "front lines" that need be physically present during regular hours?
  • How can businesses -- particularly small businesses -- contain costs while also trying to offer paid leave when employees need it?

To each of these challenging questions, participants offered innovative ideas and potential solutions. And ultimately, participant's experiences and stories revealed a truly remarkable theme.

That is -- both employers and employees are recognizing that the nature of work has changed irrevocably over the last several decades. And that flexibility can be a crucial tool in helping the American workplace catch up.

Before the Dallas event, the Society for Human Resource Management, a leading business association, published an ad declaring that "a flexible workplace is the next business imperative." At the same time, the National Partnership for Women and Families and Family Values @ Work released a report -- "Dallas Workers Speak" -- outlining how employees "satisfaction correlates with a positive workplace culture that embraces flexibility and fosters trust."

There's no doubt we've reached a turning point this year. There is increasing agreement that flexibility can support working families and business' bottom line at the same time.

And indeed, there are many innovative, effective workplace flexibility practices being used right now that are benefiting both employees and employers. In our conversations around the country, we've heard about business innovation, new models of measuring success and achieving your bottom line, practical ways to make work work for a diverse workforce, and community efforts to promote flexibility as a tool to combat traffic congestion, stabilize the low wage workforce, allow for job training opportunities, and boost health and wellness.

Sharing these stories -- and spreading the word on innovative practices -- is a key to creating meaningful change in the American workplace. Which is why it is so critical the Obama Administration has taken this national conversation on workplace flexibility on the road, and into local communities.

The Department of Labor's next stops are in Atlanta and Los Angeles -- with more to come in Seattle, Chicago, Boston and cities in between. For more information on attending an upcoming event, visit the National Dialogue on Workplace Flexibility website. And if you can't make it to an event, considering hosting your own through the White House Work-Flex Event Starter Kit. Local, on the ground knowledge will make all the difference in propelling this national conversation forward. Make your voice be heard!

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