Driving Workplace Flexibility for All

On Monday, we'll be participating in the White House Summit on Working Families, joining business leaders, economists, labor leaders, policymakers, and fellow citizens. We're meeting to answer a crucial question: How can we build a 21st century workplace that supports thriving employees, growing businesses, and healthy economies -- all at once?

It's a critical moment for this conversation, because in today's global economy, we can only succeed if we embrace people from every background and every experience. We can't afford to lose anyone's talent -- whether they're working mothers, working fathers, single parents, or anyone else. To stay competitive, we need to create diverse and inclusive cultures, then maintain them and reinforce them from the top.

One of the issues at the heart of this conversation is workplace flexibility. In other words, how do we create a flexible and inclusive work environment that enables employees to meet their responsibilities both at work and at home?

Not long ago this would have been a conversation exclusively focused on women. After all, many of our workplace flexibility journeys began when we witnessed women leaving the workforce at much higher rates than men. At EY, for instance, women were leaving at a rate that was 10 to 15 percentage points higher than men in the early 1990s. EY worked to build a flexible culture in response, and has nearly closed the gap in retention rates. In an economy where almost three-quarters of families have either two working parents or a single parent, families' success depends on maximum flexibility for all workers.

In tackling similar challenges, however, many businesses have learned a crucial lesson: when men are left out of the conversation about workplace flexibility, counterintuitively we actually hurt women's chances at achieving equality in the workplace. Today, workplace flexibility is about helping everyone thrive and reach their full potential in a changing workplace and a changing world.

This isn't just a nice thing to do -- it's the smart thing to do. Companies that welcome day-to-day flexibility are more likely to retain their employees. And Center for American Progress research has shown that replacing a worker can cost up to 20 percent of that employee's salary, while enabling flexibility can be implemented at little to no cost.

Reducing turnover doesn't just save companies money, either. It also ensures they keep talent. With the global competition for talent raging more fiercely than ever, no company can afford to lose its best people right now. We need to recruit the best, retain the best, and get the best out of them. That's why workplace flexibility is so important. Unfortunately, if workers feel like they need to choose between being good workers and good parents, they may exit the workforce in their prime.

Initiatives that support working families lead to more engaged and productive employees, while helping businesses attract and retain top-notch talent. A recent EY external study of more than 1,200 American cross-company professionals found that nearly one in five workers rank flexibility as the most important workplace perk, ahead of cash and benefits such as health care and retirement. The survey also revealed that while women across all generations valued flexibility slightly more than men, surprisingly men were more likely than women to say they would "walk away" from a job if day-to-day flexibility was not offered. We believe this is why many leading U.S. businesses have found that offering fully-paid parental leave helps recruit and retain talented employees of both genders.

Unfortunately, even with so much evidence that family-friendly policies confer a competitive advantage on businesses, many workplace initiatives have not kept pace. Families and Work Institute research revealed that while telecommuting and flexible start times have increased since 2008, more formal arrangements like job sharing and extended breaks away from work are down. In a tough economy, some employers are even tempted to cut back on workplace flexibility.

The impulse is understandable, but misguided. We've seen again and again that when employees succeed, businesses succeed. The more that flexibility is made available to everyone, the stronger our families, our businesses, and our economy will be.

As the leaders of our organizations, we have the ability to set workplace policies that empower all of our employees to succeed. But modernizing our workplaces is not just about putting new benefits on the books, whether at the national, state or business level. We must change the conversation -- and the culture -- to recognize that flexibility is not just a "women's issue." It's a family issue. It's also a business issue. All workers need flexibility to thrive in today's increasingly complex work world as they navigate their responsibilities at home and at work. Empowering everyone to participate fully in today's workforce and in today's families will boost businesses' bottom lines now, strengthen the next generation of talent, and ensure America's future competitiveness in a global economy.

Mark Weinberger is the Global Chairman & CEO of Ernst & Young Global Limited. Neera Tanden is the President of the Center for American Progress.