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Volume 2 | Issue 2 | Feb 2011
A Revolutionary Change: Making the Workplace More Flexible
Pete Souza/Official White House Photo
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with Vice President Joe Biden, President Barack Obama, and former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in December 2009. A recent Women in International Security study found that many women who have served or are currently serving in mid- and senior-level positions in the national security arena question whether it is possible to successfully juggle caretaking responsibilities and senior-level decision-making positions in government.
It is time to transform the workplace to reflect the changing realities of society. Demographics of the worldwide workforce have changed—in particular, women’s participation has increased—and such shifts are affecting worker needs. But organizations have not adapted to the expanding caretaking responsibilities and work-life balance needs of their employees, and the current workplace paradigm is placing growing stress on individuals and families. The majority of workers desire more flexibility in working environments, yet very few have it, either because such programs are not offered or because workers are dissuaded by the continuing stigma or fear of penalty associated with flexibility. A number of governments, organizations, academics, and companies are engaged in dialogue on this issue, and there have been several innovative pilot programs in recent years. Yet, despite this expanding discourse, there is a policy-practice gap, because the concept of the “ideal” worker is still associated with total dedication to the job and does not acknowledge caretaking responsibilities. We propose a new Accountability Model that is based on a universal concept of caretaking roles, a workplace that allows for and accommodates different needs at various points in one’s career and life, and an environment where employers and employees are enabled to create balanced lives while producing desired outcomes at work. Leaders at all levels play a crucial role in supporting this change.
  • The demographics of the worldwide workplace have changed, most notably with workers spending more time at work and with the increasing participation of women in the workforce.
  • Overt gender discrimination has decreased, yet women, especially those with family responsibilities, continue to face obstacles to work-life balance, promotion, and advancement. Workplace flexibility and perceived advancement opportunities are key factors in women’s decisions to leave the workforce.
  • Women and men report high levels of stress in managing both work and life responsibilities, and although the majority desire more flexibility in the workplace, few have access to these benefits.
  • Public and private stakeholders are beginning to recognize the need for workplace flexibility, and new recommendations and pilot programs are being developed. But a policy-practice gap remains because the outdated model of the “ideal” worker has not changed to reflect the realities of family and society.
  • Leaders must promote a model based on accountability in order to truly transform the culture of work.

Men and women as caregivers of children or elderly parents face unprecedented challenges in the worldwide workforce today. For the first time in our history, approximately four out of every ten mothers in the United States are primary breadwinners, and almost two-thirds are breadwinners or co-breadwinners.1 This dynamic has transformed American marriages and families, with couples working more collaboratively in order to juggle careers and caregiving. This dynamic is also transforming the American workplace and has created the need for a paradigm shift in how work is done.

Despite these demographic shifts, the current model of work is still based in part on an outdated 1950s view, when middle-class families had a single breadwinner and women stayed at home to care for children. Because a caregiver was at home, issues regarding caregiving did not directly affect the workplace. While the workplace has changed to accommodate the needs of some workers, conflicts now arise regularly between caregivers and employers that affect hiring, retention, and promotion and that ultimately can deeply affect the economic well-being of families.2

Because of the profound shifts in the workforce, the current situation is not sustainable—for individuals, families, communities, businesses, or society. Although a number of governments and organizations have examined the issue of workplace flexibility and some policies and programs have been implemented, the reality is that a majority of workers around the world still lack the flexibility they need. The paid workforce—from the working poor to professionals—continues to struggle within an outdated and ineffectual workplace structure.

This is not a question of individual choice and responsibility but a critical public policy and social issue with widespread implications. Does our workplace structure have to be this way?

The Changing Landscape of the Workplace

The workplace environment around the world has changed significantly in recent decades. First, the pace, intensity, and hours required of workers have increased. In the United States, the average middle-class family works more than 500 hours more each year than a similar family would have worked in the 1970s.1 The women’s movement and increasing social acceptance of women in professional roles have opened new opportunities for women to enter and advance in the workforce. At the same time, economic realities have made it a necessity in many cases for women to engage in paid employment. The participation of women has also altered the responsibilities for caretaking. Approximately 70 percent of children in the United States live in households where all adults are employed. At the same time, many adults—with or without children—have an additional caretaking concern: the elderly. Now, one in four Americans is caring for elders.3 For the majority of families in which all adults are working outside the home, they must depend on outside help for caretaking responsibilities.

What Is Workplace Flexibility?

Workplace flexibility is simply a way to describe how, when, and where work gets done.

The Families and Work Institute listed the following 13 examples of flexibility in its 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce:

  • Having traditional flextime (setting daily hours within a range periodically)
  • Having daily flextime
  • Being allowed to take time off during the work day to address family matters
  • Being able to take a few days off to care for a sick child or other family member without losing pay, having to use vacation days, or making up an excuse for absence
  • Being able to work some regular hours at home
  • Being able to take breaks when one wants to
  • Having a work shift that is desirable and predictable
  • Having complete or a lot of control over work schedule
  • Being able to work part-time (if currently full-time) or full-time (if currently part-time) in one’s current position
  • Being able to work a compressed work week
  • Being able to work part-year in current position
  • Seldom being required to work paid or unpaid overtime with little or no notice
  • Believing that one can use flexible work arrangements without jeopardizing job advancement51

Understanding these as elements of workplace flexibility provides insight into how such flexibility can be incorporated in a number of workplace settings.

The increasing number of women breadwinners is a positive development for gender equality, reflecting a decline in discrimination and expanding opportunities for women to rise into leadership roles within all sectors of the workforce. Recent research illustrates that women now outnumber men in many higher-education programs and in attaining advanced degrees.4 Research also shows that in many organizations women are entering the professional levels in numbers equal to men, even in some previously male-dominated sectors. For example, in the national and international security sector, some organizations, such as the United Nations, have achieved gender parity in entry-level professional categories and in the midlevel positions.5

Another piece of good news is that overt discrimination by managers and employers against women on the basis of gender has declined significantly. In a recent study by Women in International Security (WIIS), the majority of women in U.S. national security policy positions who were interviewed said they were considered and treated equally to male counterparts.6 As more women have advanced to higher-level positions in the professional fields, there is growing acceptance of women in these roles. In 2008, the Pew Research Center found that almost 70 percent of men and women had an equal perception of both men and women as leaders.7 With visible women in top roles in governments, corporations, and the nonprofit sector, it seems that the goals of the women’s movement have finally been achieved.

However, a closer look at the data reveals that there are underexamined problems with female compensation, retention, and advancement in the workforce. The pay gap between men and women has not been eliminated; women typically earn 77 cents on the dollar compared with men.1 Within the private and public sectors, there is growing recognition that employers are often having difficulty retaining women. In organizations such as the United Nations, which experiences a high level of turnover of personnel anyway, human resources officers report that even more women drop out. In some organizations, evidence indicates that women are not promoted to senior-level positions at the same rate as men, and women are “self-eliminating” by not applying for or pursuing senior-level positions. Although there may be gender equity at lower levels, less than 30 percent of senior-level managers are women in many agencies of the U.S. government and in multilateral organizations such as the United Nations.5,6 Clearly, employers are losing critical female talent. Workplace flexibility is a crucial piece of this puzzle.

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Images by Richard Morin/Solutions

The Hidden Brain Drain Task Force—a private-sector group—has done groundbreaking work in this area since its founding in 2004.8 The task force has identified a variety of push and pull factors that determine why women leave the workforce—and work-life challenges feature prominently in why women decide to leave the workforce entirely. As reported in Off-ramps and On-ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success, childcare challenges pushed 45 percent of women surveyed out of the workforce, and eldercare challenges accounted for 24 percent.9 Mirroring this finding, another study of women who left the workplace found that 86 percent of the participants cited workplace factors, including lack of flexibility, as key reasons for leaving.1

Biases and perceptions relating to advancement of women with families may be an underrecognized factor influencing women’s decisions to leave the workplace. The Hidden Brain Drain Task Force found that “women are much more likely to respond to the pull of family when they feel hemmed in by a glass ceiling.”9 A study by Cornell University, cited in The Shriver Report, showed that job candidates who were identified as mothers and had the same credentials as nonmothers “were perceived to be less competent, less promotable, less likely to be recommended for management, less likely to be recommended for hire, and had lower recommended starting salaries.”1 The Shriver Report points to evidence that workplaces that are hostile to mothers are pushing them out of employment. According to the Center for American Progress and the Center for WorkLife Law, “Many professional women don’t cheerfully opt out, they are pushed out by workplaces that define ‘full time’ as a work schedule so time-consuming that, realistically, it requires a traditional stay-at-home wife.”3 Thus, the culture of the workplace, and the biases against those with family responsibilities, can force talented women out of particular fields and, for those who are able, out of the workforce entirely.

While women’s participation has come a long way, in many cases, women—and increasingly men as well—continue to grapple with the work-life balance dilemma, which has enormous implications for health, work productivity, retention, and morale. The current situation has very real and negative consequences for women’s advancement in the workplace but also for women’s and men’s ability to juggle work and home responsibilities.

Why Now? The Urgent Case for Workplace Flexibility

The Current Framework Is Placing Increasing Stress on Individuals and Families

Workplace policies and requirements are drastically out of step with the needs of women, men, and the modern workforce as a whole. Recent research shows that 90 percent of mothers and 95 percent of fathers report a work-family conflict. Although the experiences may differ according to class, all families are experiencing increased stress in this balancing act. In the low-income bracket, work-family stress is compounded by the reality that poor families are not equipped to pay for care for dependents, and these workers have little or no job flexibility. In the middle-class bracket, workers tend to be in jobs with rigid working environments where they are routinely disciplined or fired for absenteeism relating to caretaking emergencies. For these income levels, women also report discrimination when they are pregnant or upon returning to work after pregnancy, and men often encounter negative attitudes from managers and coworkers when they seek flexibility for caretaking responsibilities. For the professional workers, the challenge is often related to expectations (overt or implicit) to spend long hours in the office. According to the Centers for American Progress and WorkLife Law, “It’s difficult—and often impossible—for both parents to work such extreme schedules.”3

Women in the U.S. Government

The pressure to work long hours in specific career sectors and positions and the impact of these pressures on women’s advancement have been examined by Women in International Security (WIIS). The group’s Progress Report on Women in Peace and Security Careers: US Executive Branch includes interviews with more than 90 women who have served or are currently serving in mid- and senior-level positions in the national security arena (including the Department of State, Department of Defense, National Security Council, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Energy, Central Intelligence Agency, and others). The interviews reveal deep frustrations about work-life balance in this professional field.

A large number of women interviewed made choices during their careers that prioritized family needs, passing up advancement opportunities. Many other women who did advance to high levels made decisions not to have children and felt they could not have made the same career achievements with family responsibilities. For example, one woman who has served in high levels of the U.S. Department of Defense and currently serves at a senior level in the White House said that she could have never accomplished her level of success in government if she had chosen to have children. Another woman observed female colleagues who left these career paths due to incompatible work-family demands: “Many women dropped out … for family reasons. Women fall out under the pressure.”6 The WIIS study also highlighted differing opinions among women about whether it is even possible to successfully juggle senior-level decision-making positions and caretaking responsibilities; dissatisfaction among women with their own work-life balance was common.

Many women in this study perceived that workplace flexibility options—including part-time, flextime, telecommuting, and on-site childcare in some cases—had improved in government over the years (except for the absence of paid maternity and paternity leave in federal government agencies). More women and men were taking advantage of the options. However, the interviewees pointed to embedded office cultures, work expectations, and manager perspectives as key obstacles to fully institutionalizing real flexibility in these workplaces. In the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service, for example, women emphasized that advancement requires “total dedication” to the job when serving in diplomatic posts overseas but also in Washington, DC, positions. As one retired U.S. ambassador observed about women in the Foreign Service during her career, “Some stayed, others left under the pressure of maintaining everything.”6 As a result, women continue to leave government policy careers as family responsibilities become more pressing at home.

Professionals in the United States are not alone in experiencing this scheduling pressure, though work hours vary across countries and to some extent reflect cultural differences. In regions such as Asia, the value of work is deeply embedded and closely intertwined with time in the office. In Japan, the average number of individuals who worked more than 50 hours each week increased between 1997 and 2000. Research highlights significant frustration, especially expressed by women. According to one study, more than 58 percent of working mothers in Japan desired balance between work and family, but only 12 percent felt they had a satisfactory balance.10 In South Korea, identity is closely tied to work, and workers are hesitant to leave the office before their supervisors. This further lengthens hours spent at the workplace.11 In Korea, long working hours have forced women out of the workforce and into full-time caregiving.12

It is not surprising that a recent U.S. survey revealed that 75 percent of Americans believe employers should be required to provide more workplace flexibility. In addition, the same survey found that 77 percent of Americans believe that businesses should be required to provide paid family and medical leave, and 68 percent believe that employers should provide more funding for childcare.13 Unfortunately, most workers do not have any access to these benefits. According to The Shriver Report, only about a quarter of employees have some kind of flexibility.14

There Is Growing Evidence of the Benefits of Workplace Flexibility

Workplace flexibility programs can alleviate some of the extreme pressures on individuals and families. For example, in one survey, approximately 90 percent of employees who were telecommuting reported that this arrangement assisted them in meeting the demands of both work and family.15 Additional time with family also has community and social benefits, and workplace flexibility has been associated with reduced stress in workers and improved health.16

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But what many employers fail to understand is that workplace flexibility, if developed and implemented in the right ways, can yield big benefits for business and organizational effectiveness. A recent White House report cited a study of the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany in which a positive relationship was found between work-life practices and productivity. Other studies also point to a correlation between flexibility and reduced absenteeism.17

With aging populations in the United States and other countries, the “war for talent” may be the most important factor for future competitiveness, and flexibility will help determine which employers will recruit and retain top talent. In another study mentioned in the White House report, nearly a third of those surveyed considered work-life balance and flexibility as the most important factor in considering job offers. Yet another study indicated that two-thirds of human resource officers reported family-supportive policies and flexibility as the most important ways to attract and retain employees.17

Outside of the United States, flexibility is also linked to retention and specifically to women’s participation in the workforce. For example, in some countries in Central and Eastern Europe, a correlation was found between the removal of work-family benefits and a rapid drop in female employment. This is contrasted with countries in which work-family benefits are widely available. For example, in Slovenia there is a high level of accessible childcare and only 12 percent of mothers are full-time caregivers, with most others remaining in the workforce.12

The retention of women in the global workforce will become even more important as large numbers of workers retire and the millennial generation enters the workforce. The millennials have grown up using mobile technology and do not see the need to put in rigid, long hours in a physical workplace when technology offers alternative—and more flexible—ways to work.18 Workers recognize that it makes good business sense over the long term for employers to implement more flexible workplace policies. As reported by the Center for American Progress, a September 2009 Rockefeller Foundation/TIME poll of 3,400 adults in the United States showed that “overwhelming majorities of both men and women believe that government and businesses need to adapt and that businesses that do not change will be left behind.”13

The Emerging Workplace Flexibility Discourse

As a result of these changing realities and expectations in the workforce, a global conversation has emerged about the best ways to promote improved quality of life. This conversation is challenging notions of gender roles as well as concepts of how work is defined. Governments have begun to integrate these issues into policymaking. In 2006, the New Zealand Department of Labour published a ten-year plan, Choices for Living, Caring and Working, to identify best practices in response to research on caregiving realities. The objective of the plan is to improve how New Zealanders live, care for their families, and work in order to improve the quality of life for all New Zealanders while boosting the country’s economic performance. The report discusses the importance of flexibility and suggests that employers will have access to a wider pool of talent if more people with caring responsibilities are able to enter the workforce or participate in it more fully. Specific segments of the plan focus on "supporting parents who wish to care for their children themselves in their first year of life; ensuring families with children under five can access and participate in high quality, affordable early childhood education; ensuring families have better access to quality, affordable, and age-appropriate out-of-school services for their school-age children; improving the choices for the one-in-five New Zealanders who are caring for adults of all ages; encouraging flexible work practices; and an ongoing commitment to evaluation and research, to ensure that the plan is effective over the next ten years."19

New Zealand’s plan of action is a timely response to both social and economic needs in the country.

The U.S. Public Policy Debate on Flexibility

In the United States, the federal government, individual states, academia, nonprofits, and industry are increasingly engaged in the discourse about the gaps in workforce flexibility and recommended solutions. On March 31, 2010, President Obama hosted the White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility to discuss how Americans can meet the demands of their jobs without sacrificing their families.20 The Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor is hosting a national dialogue on workplace flexibility to discuss how employers can empower employees and their families while becoming more competitive in a global market.21 These emerging dialogues are vital steps in the creation of updated public policies.

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Pete Souza/Official White House Photo
President Obama speaks with Samantha Power (left) and Susan E. Rice, U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations and mother of two.

A variety of institutions and collaborative initiatives are collecting and distributing data and recommendations on workplace flexibility, encouraging the expansion of best practices. Such efforts include those of Georgetown University, the Center for American Progress, the Families and Work Institute, the Institute for a Competitive Workforce (of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce), and the Twiga Foundation.

Recent academic work has also focused on another factor in workplace flexibility: the issue of discrimination. Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, recently published examples of policies that organizations can use to prevent discrimination against employees with family responsibilities. “Family responsibilities discrimination” is a growing area of liability for employers, and Williams suggests that organizations adopt a discrimination policy that specifically prohibits this kind of discrimination. For example, wording of such a policy could read, “It is the company’s policy not to discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, color, religion, age, sex, national origin or ancestry, marital status or family responsibilities, veteran’s status, or disability in accordance with applicable federal, state, and local law.”22,23 Williams argues that employers need to train their employees to prevent family responsibilities discrimination, which can also help avoid costly lawsuits.

National Innovation: Flexibility Initiatives in the United States

Progressive organizations and individuals are gradually developing or adopting creative frameworks that respond to changing demographics in the workplace. One example is the Business Opportunities for Leadership Diversity (BOLD) Initiative. This program has been tested in companies such as Chubb, Gannett, Johnson & Johnson, Weyerhaeuser, and others. It examines how businesses can schedule employees’ work time around the needs of the market.

The BOLD model is based on building work teams that identify performance goals and needs for flexibility and then devise innovative work schedules. The goal is to improve the work process while improving performance goals and responding to flexibility needs.24 According to Henry Hoffer, a senior vice president at Chubb, "The pilot program created a significant increase in employee engagement in the day-to-day workload demands. For example, team members identified work volume spikes and developed plans to manage the increased volume. There was clearly a stronger sense of commitment and a willingness to pitch in when needed. Participants learned that when they are in a flexible work arrangement, they may also need to be flexible to meet business demands."25

The BOLD Initiative proved to be a successful flexibility framework that provided workers with greater control over when and how work is accomplished and employers with reduced absenteeism and overtime costs.

A much more revolutionary new framework is known as ROWE—Results-Only Work Environment.26 This initiative was developed by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson when they worked at Best Buy. Ressler and Thompson left Best Buy to form their own consulting practice, Culture Rx, and are traveling the country to promote ROWE: "A Results-Only Work Environment is a management strategy where employees are evaluated on performance, not presence. In a ROWE, people focus on results and only results—increasing the organization’s performance while creating the right climate for people to manage all the demands in their lives … including work. In a Results-Only company or department, employees can do whatever they want whenever they want, as long as the work gets done. Employees make the decisions about what they do and where they do it, every minute of every day."27

A number of companies, nonprofits, and governmental entities have implemented workplace frameworks based on the ROWE concept. Even the U.S. Office of Personnel Management has announced a pilot program to incorporate flexibility, including the use of telework arrangements and implementing the ROWE framework for 400 employees in its own offices over eight months.28

Key Principles of ROWE

According to the ROWE website, ROWE-approved companies pledge to the following principles:

  • We do not post office hours or core hours. Our employees know where to be when they need to be there. We don’t have to dictate it. Everybody has complete control over how they spend their time. All the time.
  • We do not track time for our exempt/salaried workforce. We track work getting done.
  • There are no hours-worked expectations for exempt/salaried employees. We do not talk about how many hours we work or demand 40, 50, or 60 hours out of people.
  • We do not have a tele-work policy, handbook or tele-work rules. Tele-work is so 1970s. Work is just work. It doesn’t need a location label. And, we don’t have flextime.
  • We do not track PTO (vacation, sick time, personal time, holiday time). It’s not a benefit. Unlimited paid time off as long as the work gets done is the contemporary benefit that matters.
  • Nobody asks permission to go to an appointment, event or any other personal activity. Ever. And they don’t have to inform the team or management in an effort to be polite.
  • We have adopted the Sludge Eradication Strategy—NO SLUDGE in our workplace.
  • We NEVER put “mandatory” on a meeting invite. Every meeting is optional.
  • We don’t have any limits put on how or when we can work: “No E-Mail Fridays” and “No Meeting Wednesdays” don’t exist in our organization.29

What is the impact of ROWE on organizational effectiveness and employee morale? The ROWE website cites Best Buy as an example of the success of ROWE in talent retention, stating that “ROWE teams at Best Buy Co., Inc. are experiencing a decrease in voluntary turnover rates—the company is retaining the right talent. ROWE teams also experience an increase in involuntary turnover rates—unsatisfactory performance is exposed.”29

In 2007, Phyllis Moen and Erin Kelly of the University of Minnesota examined the impact of ROWE: “We find remarkable evidence that ROWE has a statistically significant impact on some (but not all) measures of employees’ schedule control and decisions about where and when they work, their health and wellness, and their work pressures and commitment.” Among the authors’ findings, more ROWE employees (as compared to non-ROWE employees surveyed) reported a decrease in negative spillover from work to family, less work-family conflict, a view of the work culture as being family friendly, and more job satisfaction.30

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It will be important to collect longitudinal data about the effectiveness of ROWE and other emerging flexibility frameworks. For example, it would be prudent for researchers to explore the impact in a ROWE system of not having any paid time off from work. Another consideration is the question of how workers establish boundaries between their work and home lives. When is it appropriate to turn off one’s cell phone and computer and how quickly must one respond to requests from work? Does working in a ROWE framework improve communication and feedback between managers, supervisors, employees, and coworkers? Does ROWE improve performance and prevent burnout? ROWE is an incredibly innovative framework for working, and it will be interesting to see how it affects both employees and employers over time.

A New Model of Work: The Accountability Model

Clearly, there is an emerging body of literature and a growing dialogue about the need to better define workplace flexibility rights and responsibilities and to implement practical policies that benefit both employees and employers, but there is still a policy-practice gap. This gap exists because new flexibility policies are incongruent with the existing “ideal” model of work. In the United States, this model assumes that a worker does not have time constraints or caregiving responsibilities.2,31,32 Making allowances for caregiving inevitably demotes a worker from “ideal” status to one with special needs, one who requires special accommodations. This of course affects perceptions in the workplace and advancement opportunities. In order for effective workplace flexibility policies and programs to succeed, there must be a shift in this mentality.

Our current model of work is neither sustainable nor desirable.33 We need men and women in the workplace, and we also need both men and women to be available for caregiving and community responsibilities.34 It is time to recognize that the demographics of the workplace have changed and to respond by creating a new model of work that supports these new demographics.

The new model of work should be based on the concept of accountability. The goal of this model is to transform the way we work and enhance the way we live. The Accountability Model will enable organizations to design work arrangements that are adaptable to the ebb and flow of both the economy and life changes.

The Accountability Model

The Accountability Model, created by Amy Brown and Rachel Barbour, was inspired by the work of Chai Feldblum and others.23,34-40 The model assumes the following:

  1. That all workers have caregiving responsibilities
  2. That all workers will need to adjust the time they spend doing paid and unpaid work at various stages of their lives
  3. That all workers are responsible for achieving desired outcomes

Redefining the Concept of Caretaking

The importance of families (however we define them) and communities transcends time and culture. People around the world and throughout history have engaged in daily caregiving activities and celebrations or special occasions with their families and communities. The Accountability Model expands our current notion of “caretaking” to encompass the universal needs of all workers: care for oneself; care for others, including children and elderly family members; and care for our communities. The Accountability Model supports “family consciousness” (a concept highlighted by the Twiga Foundation) and is based on the reality that everyone has caregiving responsibilities.41

As the number of hours Americans work has increased, so has our need for time to care for ourselves. In 2005, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Health Research, Penn State, RTI International, Portland State University, Michigan State University, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Southern California received significant funding from the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control to form the Work, Family and Health Network. According to the group’s website, “The Work, Family & Health Network is providing scientific evidence about how changes in the work environment can improve the health of workers and their families while benefiting organizations.”42 Researchers are considering how the amount of time spent at work affects our health, and the Accountability Model requires that we acknowledge the need to care for ourselves, especially if we have additional caregiving responsibilities.

Responding to Life Phases and Caretaking Needs

With this expanded notion of caretaking, it is reasonable to assume that all workers will need the flexibility to adjust paid and unpaid work at various stages of their lives. For example, workers may need to take a break from paid work or reduce the number of hours spent doing paid work to pursue additional training or education, recover from illness or injury, care for a child or elderly family member, care for a family member with disabilities or a chronic medical condition, pursue volunteer work or public service, support a spouse’s or partner’s career opportunity, gradually retire, or pursue a life-enriching activity. Savvy employers will figure out how to develop opportunities for less than 100 percent full-time-equivalent positions (FTEs). Establishing these types of positions will enable employers to retain or attract talented employees in response to employees’ life courses and employers’ economic ebbs and flows.

Cost is an important factor, since employers make decisions about whether to offer health insurance, disability insurance, and paid time off based on cost assessments. It may be possible to take the burden of care off of the employer and to fund such programs through payroll or income taxes, for example.43 Researchers from Workplace Flexibility 2010, a policy initiative at Georgetown University Law Center, and the Center on Health, Economic and Family Security at the University of California Berkeley School of Law recently released a report titled Family Security Insurance: A New Foundation for Economic Security.44 A national system of family security insurance, the authors explain, would provide wage replacement (up to 80 percent of weekly wages, with a maximum of 150 percent of the national weekly wage) for a worker’s illness (up to 26 weeks), for the need to care for a new child (up to 12 weeks per parent, for both men and women), or for the need to care for a family member (up to 12 weeks). The payments received would be considered taxable income.

This is a remarkable proposal because it acknowledges that all workers have caregiving responsibilities, that there are times when workers need to leave the workplace temporarily, and that workers need financial resources to make this possible. This proposed policy is congruent with the Accountability Model.

Employee and Employer Accountability

A key element of the Accountability Model is personal responsibility. If employers redesign the way that work is completed by allowing greater flexibility, employees must reciprocate by being accountable for desired outcomes.

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Motek, a small software company (fewer than 50 employees) in Beverly Hills, California, is an example of a workplace that relies on this type of accountability. When Ann Price founded Motek in 1990, she wanted to promote trust, autonomy, and a well-balanced life. The company’s mission was to improve the life of its employees as well as its customers. As Price commented, “Smart employees manage themselves perfectly well if they have complete information.”45 Price designed a company culture that expected employees to lead balanced lives while producing quality results. To encourage work-life balance, it was mandatory for everyone to take a lunch hour and not talk shop. The office closed at 5:00 p.m. Every employee received five weeks of paid vacation plus vouchers to help fund vacations, because vacations reduce employee stress. The company also subsidized housing in Beverly Hills so that employees could walk to work. Each employee was considered an owner and voted on a range of issues such as office furniture, pay raises (employee salaries fell below the market rate), the size of their bonuses, and project assignments.

At Motek, employees gathered on Monday mornings to volunteer for work assignments and agreed to do what they could manage for the week. If on Thursday it appeared that the work was not going to be completed, an employee could issue a “Thursday alert”: the employee could request help from others or pass the assignment to someone else to complete on time. Or, if the assignment could not be completed on time, the employee could communicate with the customer about the new completion date. Furthermore, if an employee issued the Thursday alert, that employee would be rewarded. By rewarding employees for sending alerts, the company motivated its employees to be accountable for desired outcomes, namely the quality of the product and service.46 Price intended to build a company that would be a market leader in software design for warehouses and promised her employees a share of the profits when the company was sold.46 In 2002, Fortune named Motek the best place to work.47 In August 2008, AFS Technologies acquired Motek.48

Guiding the Change from Within: Moving Organizations Forward on Flexibility

Moving to the Accountability Model will require deep change—a revolution—in the attitudes and processes within organizations. To be effective, such change must be generated from within, so that it has adequate buy-in from individuals at all levels of organizations and so that it is developed in the context of specific organizational and employee needs. Too often, organizations implement a linear change management system that fails to produce desirable results. Prior to the formation of ROWE at Best Buy, Cali Ressler was working on developing an alternative work program and she put together a collection of best practices from other companies. A leader at Best Buy told Cali Ressler to get rid of the guidebook she had developed: “He explained in no uncertain terms, that this would be an organically grown movement that would not be dictated by best practices from other companies.”49 While best practices can be helpful for brainstorming or expanding the scope of possibilities, they are not necessarily a panacea for an organization. Lasting change may be influenced by outside factors but will need to grow from within each organization.

Recently, Daniel Pink published a book called Drive that challenges our notions of how organizations succeed. He argues that what really motivates us comes from within and that our best work is a result of intrinsic motivation. And yet, our workplace systems continue to use extrinsic rewards, such as pay for working long hours, believing that they are correlated to desired outcomes. The problem is that extrinsic rewards lose their luster, and, eventually, they no longer improve performance. “Intrinsic behavior is self-directed and devoted to becoming better and better at something that matters. And, it connects that quest for excellence to a larger purpose,” writes Pink.50 We need leaders who understand that adaptability is necessary in a rapidly changing world and that workplace flexibility is a key component of keeping pace with change.

Leadership Accountability: The Role of Leaders in Creating a New Model of Work

Transforming the workplace to match the realities that women and men face will require sustained focus from leaders at all levels. At the policy level, there is a clear mandate from the majority of workers for real change in the way these environments are managed, and the mounting stresses on individuals make this all the more urgent. Policymakers need to become more attuned leaders who are willing to update outdated labor and leave laws, protect workers from discrimination based on caretaking responsibilities, develop public-private partnerships to create model programs and incentives for flexibility, and set an example within all agencies and offices of government, transforming them into workplaces that are supportive and responsive to the needs of all employees.

Because this is not only a national but a global issue, the United States and other countries should share information on the effectiveness of laws, policies, and initiatives so that best practices can be identified and adapted for particular country and organizational contexts. And while leadership at the policy level is vital to ensure fair standards and to support new initiatives, individual leaders in organizations and companies will determine whether workplace flexibility is implemented in practice.

Recent studies of the United Nations and the U.S. executive branch demonstrate the powerful role of leaders in determining whether the workplace is supportive of flexibility needs, specifically among women. In the United Nations, influential mentors at the senior level often encourage female mentees to take on positions of increasing responsibility and support them through work-life balance choices and challenges, ultimately helping those women to advance into senior positions.5 In the case of the U.S. executive branch, the Women in International Security study found that “direct leadership played the most significant role in setting the tone for whether work-life balance was accepted.”6 When managers prioritized time in the office above outside responsibilities on a regular basis and expected the same of their subordinates, women struggled to make personal choices about work versus family. On the other hand, when managers modeled support for work-life balance, women were more satisfied with the work environment and more comfortable prioritizing their needs at home when necessary.

Those who are preparing to serve or are serving in leadership positions need to recognize that their own actions and behaviors establish the climate of the workplace and that support for work-life balance cannot just be on paper but must be modeled every day in leadership. All stakeholders—at the global, national, organizational, and individual levels—must engage in data gathering and dialogue to understand the needs of the modern workforce and to implement policy changes so that individuals and organizations can reap the benefits of enhanced workplace flexibility.

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Jolynn Shoemaker Executive director of Women in International Security (WIIS) at Georgetown University
Amy Brown Human resources consultant in the Twin Cities.
Rachel Barbour Conflict resolution specialist at the National Mediation Board
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