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White House Launches Push For Workplace Flexibility

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Two out of three American families are so-called "juggler families," in which parents are forever trying to balance the needs of their job with the needs of their children.

But many workplaces -- and government policies -- are still stuck in the distant past, operating as if most families still had a single breadwinner, and someone else to mind the kids when they're out of school, or the grandparents when they need care.

Once you realize that, there are a bunch of employer practices and policy proposals that suddenly make a lot of sense: Encouraging telecommuting, giving people time off for family emergencies, enabling flexible schedules, allowing employees to swap shifts, and so on.

At the White House on Wednesday, Michelle and Barack Obama held a summit meeting to discuss, as the president put it, "what we can do -- as business leaders and advocates, as employees and as government officials -- to modernize our workplaces to meet the needs of our workforce and our families."

As part of his push, Obama cited a new White House report which concludes that flexible workplace rules could increase productivity.

But he also cast the need for more humane workplaces in moral terms.

"[U]ltimately, it reflects our priorities as a society -- our belief that no matter what each of us does for a living, caring for our loved ones and raising the next generation is the single most important job that we have. I think it's time we started making that job a little easier for folks," he said.

The invited guests split into working groups to share stories of best practices currently in use. Several companies reported great success in giving their employees more flexibility.

Dow Corning HR chief Alan Hubbard described a scene of enlightened self interest; where his company offers workers a dazzling array of ways to address their domestic needs, in a quest to "eliminate the noise in their lives" and "allow them to focus on the very things we need them to do."

Advocates of greater workplace flexibility consistently said their biggest obstacle is managers who can't let go of the need to exercise authority over employees -- in person. "Sometimes flexibility requires sharing control," said Peter Berg, a Michigan State University professor who tracks workplace issue. "Sometimes there's a sense [among managers] that we don't necessarily want to share control."

Donna Klein, who heads the advocacy group Corporate Voices for Working Families, said that when she worked for Marriott Hotels, she discovered just how attached some managers are to face time. "We surveyed the managers, and with respect to flexibility and people not being there, the managers were more comfortable seeing -- being able to see -- an employee not working than they were not seeing an employee and wondering if they weren't working."

Michelle Clements, HR chief for outdoor outfitter REI, said "the greatest obstacles are leaders who don't embrace it, don't support it, and employees live in fear."

There were few explicit policy proposals --- at least not yet.

Linda Meric, of the 9to5 advocacy group, was one of the few to make the point that government has a role in establishing some minimum standards for such things as paid sick days, and paid family and medical leave.

Both the president and the first lady discussed how, not so long ago, they had their own problems balancing work and family obligations.

"I remember those days," Michele Obama said. "And as all the parents in this room know, it's never perfect -- ever. But here's the thing: As we all know here today, it just doesn't have to be that way, doesn't have to be that hard."

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