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Building a Grassroots Movement: Taking Workplace Flexibility From Private to Public

Workplace flexibility can make a huge difference for working parents, by providing control over when, how and where work gets done. So why aren't the needs of working parents for flexibility becoming a big public issue and ultimately the normal way of doing business?
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By now it should come as no surprise to anyone to hear that American parents are struggling to meet the conflicting demands of their jobs and their families. As the field of work-life research has grown over the past two decades, we've seen hundreds of studies showing that structural changes in the American family and the way that we work have led to unprecedented work-life conflict for all of us.

Of course, most of us don't need studies to show us this; we know this from our own lives. But what many of us miss when we fail to look at the bigger picture is that this isn't my problem; it's our problem. Despite an enormous body of evidence, most of us continue to see our work-life conflicts as private problems that have to be worked out individually. But when we try to tackle these problems on our own, we end up frustrated and exhausted, often feeling we are being forced to choose between being a good parent and being a good worker. Workplace flexibility, while a little thing, can make a huge difference for working parents, by providing control over when, how and where work gets done. So why aren't the needs of working parents for flexibility becoming a big public issue and ultimately the normal way of doing business? The way I see it, there are four barriers to this happening:

  • It's not me, it's us. People still think that the work-family conflict they experience is a private issue. It's not. It is part of a larger problem, and something we need to address collectively. If we add up all of the millions of private work-family problems that American working parents face, we see that this is not millions of individual issues, but one whopping public issue.

  • The business case is not understood. Despite years of research showing that workplace flexibility is good for business, many people still think that flexible scheduling, telecommuting and other flexible work arrangements are bad for business and cost too much. In fact, mountains of research show that flexibility, when properly designed and implemented as a strategic business tool, is good for the bottom line. It can increase engagement, a key ingredient for improving productivity; reduce absenteeism and overtime; and decrease attrition and its associated recruitment and training costs. Flexibility makes good business sense, but too often business leaders do not understand this.
  • We don't know how to do it. Even when company policies are in place and managers and supervisors are positively inclined, they often don't have the knowledge and tools they need to effectively implement and manage flexible work options; they simple don't know how to do it.
  • Making the ask. Most employees still aren't asking for workplace flexibility, no matter what their situation. Most often they don't know how to frame the request in business terms, thereby decreasing their odds of getting flexibility. And in this economy, employees are often afraid that asking for flexibility will result in stigma or job threat. Knowing how to ask in business terms could go a long way -- although not all the way -- to addressing these fears.
  • So what can we do to move workplace flexibility into the public discourse and advance its widespread adoption and implementation? In effect, how do we launch a grassroots movement so that the private issues facing working parents become solvable public ones? Here are four steps to take the workplace flexibility movement from private to public:

    1) Awareness that you are not alone. Lots of people, including working parents, as well as older workers, people with disabilities, and family members of those in the military, need workplace flexibility. Strength rests in numbers and the numbers are large, but they are now quiet. Someone once told me that what we now need is a "coming out" moment. People need to find their voices and publicly speak out about the struggles they face and the solutions they need. Moreover, businesses need to talk, too. Lots of companies are doing terrific things with flexibility. CEOs, managers and supervisors need to share their experiences and successes. All of us need to come out and talk about the challenges we face, the flexibility solutions we need, and the realistic ways that it can work. But we need a platform for making these voices heard.

    2) Education about the tools that are available. There are many resources out there for helping supervisors and managers run effective work-life programs. Unfortunately, a lot of employers and employees don't know about them. WorldatWork's Alliance for Work-Life Progress' National Work and Family Month tools page is a great place to start, and there are many more resources, such as the Society for Human Resources Management's We Know Next, Families and Work Institute's When Work Works, and Corporate Voices for Working Families.

    3) Conviction. People across the work spectrum have already begun to stand up in favor of making this change -- employers, employees, managers, CEOs, CFOs and HR directors. But most of us still don't believe that we can make this happen; we still shrug and say, "That's the way it is." Each of us needs the conviction to say we're ready to make a change -- in our own lives and on a larger level.

    4) Action. The desire is there, the research is there, and the conviction is growing. So let's make it happen. This week the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation announced another important step in that direction: two grants totaling more than $3.3 million. The first grant will go to the Society of Human Resource Managers, working with Families and Work Institute to build the workplace flexibility movement in all 50 states. They will produce tool kits and resources, free of charge, that will help HR practitioners, employers and employees find workplace flexibility solutions that work.

    The second grant will create a new Web-based platform, currently named Flexibility Online, which will take the case for workplace flexibility to the masses. Flexibility Online will provide an interactive space for letting these voices be heard and facilitating this "coming out" moment. Equally important, the site will provide resources to workers and supervisors/managers, helping all of us find ways to solve these problems.

    Over the coming years, SHRM, FWI, and Flexibility Online will bring together employees, employers, managers and HR reps, all with the goal of ensuring concrete steps to take workplace flexibility from research to reality, and to help every working person find ways to fit their work, life and family together in a satisfactory way.

    You can do your part, too. If you realize that your work and your life aren't fitting together, don't think that the best solution is keeping your head down and just getting through it. Start talking about your work-life conflict and brainstorming possible solutions with your employer, manager, and HR professionals. The best thing for all of us--businesses, families, and employees -- is that we start talking about these problems, and start finding solutions. It's time for workplace flexibility to come out.