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Making History: The White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility

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The idea of having a White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility would have been beyond anything I could have imagined when a literally handful of us came to the independent conclusion in the 1970s that work was "not working" for employees.

We came from very different places in arriving at the same conclusion. My own research had been on children and families as had others'; a few had conducted research on the workplace; and a few worked for large corporations or for business schools. And even before the Internet would have made finding each other easy, we did manage to connect, to meet, conduct studies, and implement more family-friendly programs and policies (as they were called in those days).

At a meeting of the Conference Board's Work Life Leadership Council (where many of us convened on a regular basis beginning in 1983), we once went around the room, round-robin style, to share why we cared so much about this issue. The reasons were all profoundly personal--one of us had had a boss who was not flexible during a difficult pregnancy, another had huge support during the death of a parent, and another had a daughter who was treated differently than her male colleagues. The reasons were all about our own families and personal lives.

Although those of us who joined forces to help create the field of work and family life were men and women, we began by focusing on women and child care. We used to say, "demographics are destiny," meaning that the rapid influx of women into the workforce made workplace change inevitable. Our words, however, hit many brick walls--the prevailing attitudes were "if women can't hack it in the workplace, they should go home." So while the business champions argued that these shifts in workforce demographics were here to stay, they still had the need to make a strong business case for addressing child care (turnover and absenteeism were costly) so that they could "fix" the problem. And frankly, some truly believed that they could fix this problem and then move back to serious business issues.

But, of course, child care problems were not so easily "fixed," and the business champions among us got more deeply enmeshed in doing more with child care, then in adding elder care and workplace flexibility to their portfolios.

Still there was strong resistance. Work and family life were seen private issues, not business concerns. I can't tell you how times we heard, "if you give employees an inch (flexibility), they will take a mile." In a worldview where "presence equals productivity," the business champions found the road to workplace change full of pitfalls.

What's more, we all understood the resistance. The view that "presence equals productivity" is appropriate in an industrial economy. Furthermore, managing in new ways to work can be difficult.

But then in the 1990s and 2000s, the workplace and the economy began to change as fast as employee demographics. At that time, employers began to see that "work wasn't working for employers either." Those companies most able to survive and thrive in after 9.11 after Katrina, after H1N1, or after the economic downturn were those that were flexible. Companies were becoming flexible for community reasons too--to be green, reduce traffic congestion and air pollution as well as to attract new employers into their communities. And everyone wanted fully engaged employees.

In addition, the younger generation was used to technology and to working anytime, anyplace. And the older generation needed to continue to work to afford their eventual retirements, but wanted to ease into retiring, rather than making abrupt changes.

And that is the landscape as we look forward to the White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility this coming Wednesday, March 31st.

We had a preview of the Forum last week in DC at the Work Life Conference, co-convened by the Families and Work Institute and The Conference Board. Speaking at the conference, Martha Coven of the White House Domestic Policy Council said that some might argue that employees are lucky just to have jobs, that companies have to focus on meeting their payrolls, and that the government needs to get the economy back on track and stabilizing it. They ask, "why workplace flexibility; why now?"

That is a false choice, she countered. Workplace flexibility is something that we have to do not only when times are good, but when times are bad. Workplace flexibility will help our businesses AND our families thrive.

Terrell McSweeney, Domestic Policy Advisor to Vice President Biden and Deputy Assistant to President Obama, echoed this point of view. She said that we can't help the economy recover unless we help employees care for their families or go to school to improve their skills. She described workplace flexibility as part of the infrastructure that makes jobs work.

It is been a long road, since those days in the 1970s when a few people took on the very radical issue of work and family and workplace flexibility. It has been a road filled with many unexpected twists and turns, setbacks, and openings. But never in those early days could I have expected a President and a First Lady to talk openly about their own struggles in managing work and family. And certainly never could I have expected workplace flexibility to be recognized as part of the infrastructure that makes work "work" for employees, employers, communities, and the country.

Let's see what Wednesday brings! And let's hope that it is the beginning of a new conversation, not just a one-time moment.