06/27/2014 06:41 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2014

Work, Family and the White House

Over the past several weeks, the Boston College Center for Work & Family has had the privilege of participating in two events sponsored by the White House focused on improving the lives of working people and their families. On June 9, we were invited to present at the White House for the first ever event on working fathers. It featured presentations from administration officials, thought leaders, and business executives. New York Mets' second baseman Daniel Murphy, who had unwittingly ignited a national debate on fatherhood by simply taking paternity leave was also on hand, with his wife and beautiful young son.

This event was followed by the much-publicized White House Summit for Working Families on June 23, 2014, that included presentations from President Obama, the First Lady, the Vice President and Dr. Jill Biden, Maria Shriver, Representative Nancy Pelosi and the Congressional Women's Caucus, CEOs from some of the country's leading companies, and feminist icon Gloria Steinem.

After more than 20 years of conducting research and working with employers to develop and implement employee-friendly work practices, it was extremely gratifying to hear the country's government and business leaders speaking "our language" and recognizing the importance of these issues for employees, families, our economy and society as a whole.

Some of the critical points we heard at the two summits that struck us as being the most resonant included:
  • For businesses to prosper, they need talented employees who are fully engaged in their work.
  • Businesses that offer workplace flexibility will be able to attract and retain the best talent.
  • Work-life issues are not limited to any one gender, race, or job category. They are a universal. They apply to women and men as well as people of every race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and sexual orientation.
  • The United States lags far behind every other developed and the vast majority of developing countries in the world in offering paid parental leave to employees.
  • The unwillingness of elected officials to maintain a livable, minimum wage does not support the interests of business, ultimately it undermines them. It is hard to say we care about working families when parents can work full-time and yet be unable to lift their family above the poverty line.
  • Millennials (our future workforce and leadership talent pool) are committed to working hard, but also maintaining a healthier work-life "balance." They will demand supportive workplaces and supervisors or they "vote with their feet", leaving organizations who do not provide for more flexible and efficient ways of working.
  • Some leading organizations are responding to the changes in technology, globalization, and shifting workplace demographics, but many are not.

What we did not hear, but would like to emphasize based on our experience:

  • Workplace flexibility is not an "accommodation" or perk, but part of a broader business strategy for succeeding in today's 24/7 global work environment.
  • Work-life challenges exist not only for parents and other caregivers, but for all employees. Millennials, Gen Xers and Boomers are all seeking better work-life "fit" and policies for flexibility should be reason-neutral.
  • Organizations that are truly committed to women's advancement need to recognize that women's growth into roles of greater responsibility will be dependent not only on what happens in the workplace, but also at home. In order for women to achieve parity at work, it is critical that men be not just allowed, but encouraged to take a greater role in the raising and caring for their children. This starts with paternity leave, but must extend to flexible work policies, and respect for the increasing roles fathers play at home.
  • Establishing a culture that respects employees as whole persons with full lives promotes a healthy, productive work environment.
  • For individuals, developing a personal vision for "success" not based on outdated gender norms, or the badge of honor of "busyness."

So what did we take away from this experience? On one hand, a feeling of encouragement that the conversation on work-life is being elevated to a national priority for this administration, and that much-needed attention is being paid to the challenges of working families today. And hope, that more organizations will follow the lead of the organizations presenting at the Summits and recognize that it makes good business sense to develop policies to attract, develop, engage, and retain the talent they need to help their organizations succeed.

On the other hand, a level of wariness in terms of what happens next. In our current political climate, national legislation that addresses needs such as a higher minimum wage, paid parental leave, and other family friendly policies seems a long way off. State governments may need to act on their own. If they choose to do so, the examples of California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey might suggest that implementing paid parental leave for employees is not a "job killer" - quite the contrary. And individual organizations can step up their efforts to acknowledge the multiple life roles that employees play and offer work structures and supports to increase loyalty, productivity, and long-term retention.

None of this will happen, however, unless individual employees are vocal at their workplace and in the ballot booth about their desires to contribute as working professionals while maintaining a fulfilling life outside of work.