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Corporate Voices -- Defining the Work-Life Field

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As we observe National Work & Family Month this October, working families across the country are struggling to balance the dual demands of work and family. The economy has begun its nascent recovery, however millions are still without jobs, and may be without jobs for years to come. Others find themselves among the growing ranks of the working poor. 2009 census data revealed that more Americans are living in poverty now than at any time since the 1950s. At the same time, young women, minorities, and mature workers are an undeniable force defining the current and future labor market. They are increasingly juggling work with raising children, taking care of families, going to school, retirement, or volunteering in their communities.

Within this context, we see a nation in flux. Amid difficult economic times, we see workers struggling to maintain financial stability and find or keep scarce jobs. We also see a future bright with a young and vibrant workforce with powerful potential. Some say the ability of our nation to harness the potential of all of its workers for our future economic prosperity rests with family-friendly policies that enable workers to balance both work and family obligations. What role, then, do corporate and federal policies play in supporting work-life balance? And how have these policies and practices evolved since the start of the work-life movement?

To answer these questions, Corporate Voices conducted a Q&A with me, as a pioneer of the work-life field and CEO and Executive Chair of Corporate Voices for Working Families. I built my career at Marriott International, where I spearheaded the first Associate Resource Line (ARL) to help hourly workers manage daily life challenges. The ARL then went on to become the standard for corporate work-life programs. In 2001, I founded Corporate Voices for Working Families, which is now the leading business membership organization representing the corporate perspective on issues involving working families. Here are my answers to these pressing questions.

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Q: Donna, as we look ahead to the November mid-term elections, how can our elected officials support family-friendly policies to help working families? What can they do to recognize and encourage corporate leadership for work-life balance?

A. We could talk about child care subsidies and paid family leave, but I'd rather focus with a laser beam on one thing--flexibility. Corporate Voices is leading a national campaign to expand the number of for-profit and non-profit companies that embrace the use of flexible workplaces as a strategic management tool. Elected officials can encourage all employers in their districts to jump on the bandwagon. If there is one solution that universally supports all workers, it is flexibility. And, it is number one on all employees' wish lists. It's easy to do and cost-neutral for employers, so it provides the biggest bang for the buck.

Q. Are family-friendly work policies today more effective in helping families than they were during your years at Marriott? How have they evolved?

A. I wouldn't say more effective, per-se, but they are more easily and frequently accessed, and provide support to a wider group of people. Remember that decades ago, work-life programs were created for working mothers. As knowledge grew, and human capital measurement techniques became more sophisticated, businesses began to see the benefit of providing support to all workers--after all, we all struggle with balance issues. More programs and broader application multiplied by a greater number of companies providing support equals greater effectiveness for the workforce as a whole.

Q. What advances have been made in corporate practices to help hourly workers in particular?

A. There have been many, many advances. When I began my work at Marriott, many hourly employers were not measuring the impact of supportive policies for hourly workers. The return on investment was perceived as less, because their hourly wage was less. As we became more adept at human capital measurement techniques, the knowledge of how to measure and cost out the impact on hourly workers, in terms of productivity and retention improvements, began to build a compelling business case for investment. As the labor market tightened, support for hourly workers started to grow based on this data, as well as on the realization that hourly workers, when retained, improve the business bottom-line.

Q. Do the same challenges that existed in helping hourly workers in the past exist today?

A. Challenges still exist, and in many ways, they are the same. When you, as a family, do not have sufficient disposable income to pay for services that you need on the open market, life becomes much more complex. How do you go to work if you don't have affordable child care? How do you take your child to child care if you don't have a car? If you have a major illness or other unplanned challenge, how do you cope with it?

Paying for help is the most common solution. For many hourly workers, however, finding the extra money to pay for help has been the challenge. That's still the case. But we have made lots of progress despite the ongoing challenges. Employers now have a greater understanding of the challenges, the obligations, and the benefit to the business bottom-line for providing assistance to hourly workers.

Q. What impact did the Associate Resource Line (ARL) at Marriott have on the work-life field at the time?

A. The ARL was seminal work. Essentially, it took the existing "resource and referral" model of support and changed the costing model and the breadth of services to serve a broader cohort of workers-- hourly and low-wage workers. "Resource and referral" was previously developed to support mainly professionals and management employees at a higher income level. It was based on the old EAP costing model, which was a medical model. (EAP was founded to address substance and alcohol abuse in the workforce.) Because it was a medical model, however, the cost per employee covered was fairly high, and thus could not be justified against an hourly wage. But based on the research we did at Marriott, we knew more pressing needs existed for our working families, which were not medically based. They needed assistance with housing, transportation, naturalization, accessing schools and finding child care that they could afford.

It was clear that our hourly employees needed broader services, including those provided by social workers, so we created a nation-wide network of social workers. We changed the costing model to one based on the costs of providing the social services our hourly workers needed. Doing so, we were able to provide a broad breadth of family support services at a much lower per-capita cost. After one year, we were able to provide a 4 percent return on investment for the ARL program. Changing the costing model enabled companies to justify having a resource and referral service for hourly workers, despite their hourly wage.

Q. You founded Corporate Voices as a coalition for businesses to become involved in supporting and advancing social policies. Since its beginning, what role has Corporate Voices played in defining the work-life field and advancing the work-life agenda in Congress?

A. With respect to Corporate Voices' role in defining the field, two things are important. One, we do research within our corporate partners and the public as well. The needs of our corporate partners and the public in general define the movement of the field. We simply articulate the movement of the field and communicate that information to both business and policymakers. After ten years, I am proud to say Corporate Voices has become the "go to" organization on what's happening in Congress and how to advance the work-life agenda!

We are leading a national workplace flexibility campaign, at the request of the White House, to create a broader awareness of the business and employee benefits of workplace flexibility. The goal of this campaign is to have businesses sign our Statement of Support for Expanding Workplace Flexibility to express support for workplace flexibility as a strategic management and talent development tool. We are working with the Women's Bureau at the Department of Labor to organization a series of national dialogues around the country to shine the spotlight on the successes of implementing flexibility across industries of all types and sizes. The campaign will create the forward momentum that is critically needed to expand flexibility in the business community.

Corporate Voices is also actively engaged in helping businesses comply with new federal regulations on workplace support for nursing mothers. We are updating our employer toolkit on workplace lactation, developing employer success stories, hosting webinars, and are collaborating with the Wage & Hour Division at the Department of Labor to help develop regulations for the new law-- with the end goal of helping create more institutional supports for nursing mothers in the workplace.

Q. The U.S. was recently ranked as the 11th best country in the world, according to a recently published ranking of the world's "100 Best Countries" by Newsweek. The U.S.' ranking was lowered primarily because of its low scores on educational attainment. How does Corporate Voices' body of work on workforce readiness speak to this issue, and to the issue of America's declining rankings in education worldwide?

Corporate Voices was the first organization in the work-life arena to recognize and embrace workforce readiness as a critical component of the field. Corporate Voices defines itself as an organization dedicated to life-cycle support. Using the talent pipeline as a metaphor to define our work, Corporate Voices seeks to eliminate the barriers to a sustainable, competitive American workforce.

Just as the lack of child care poses a challenge to hourly workers' financial stability, so does the absence of education and a support system pose a challenge to the existence of a viable, capable, cutting-edge and leading workforce. That is the problem to be solved. We have in the U.S. a decreasingly "work-ready" workforce. This is a complex issue that has a myriad of causes, and which will take broad intervention by multiple stakeholders to correct. But our future economic competitiveness is at stake. American corporations need to embrace talent development, from the early years through adulthood, as a key component to their social and civic responsibilities. It is in their business interests to do so.

We are heavily engaged in leading the business community in workforce readiness with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Kellogg Foundation, and Philip Morris USA, an Altria Company. It is a monumental task, and we will be working to engage more corporations in our efforts in a variety of ways throughout the next few years. The challenge cannot be ignored any longer, and corporations are beginning to hear and to understand.

Q. What forces do you think will shape the work-life field in the future? What role do you see Corporate Voices playing in this future?

A. Main forces that will shape the future of the work-life field include: the expansion of workplace flexibility and flexible scheduling, providing education, resource and referral, and leaders in their communities attempting to create a greater availability of subsidized child care for workers. Businesses across the country can also participate with Corporate Voices' partner companies to continue to fight for laws which would support the creation of more affordable child care. It is an ongoing battle far from over.

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Donna Klein will be recognized by Working Mother Media as one of the "Seven Wonders of the Work-Life World," at the "100 Best Companies Work-Life Congress" in New York on October 27. Corporate Voices also plans to contribute the introduction and feature article on workplace flexibility in a report on Work-Life Balance in the November 5 issue of USA Today.