05/16/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Creating Workplace Flexibility: We're All In This Together

I find myself intrigued by the comments generated by NPR's first installment of what is billed to be a three-part series on work-life: More Employers Make Room for Work-Life Balance. For those of us who have been practitioners in the work-life field for awhile, it is not news that more and more employers are getting with the program, so to speak. Although a lot more heat than light has been generated in the popular press on this subject over the past 18 months, it is a fact that work-life initiatives have grown during the Great Recession.

We know this because it has been measured; professionals in the field have taken the national pulse during these trying times. We also know this because work-life responses have increased during previous economic downturns. The dynamic is simple. When money gets painfully tight, leadership teams are reminded that many of the people who work for them are also motivated by such intrinsic rewards as recognition for being a valued contributor, basic respect for who they are as individuals, and, yes, the gift of time. Additionally, when companies are laying people off and thus ripping asunder the fabric of their organizational culture, work-life programs are sometimes applied like a tourniquet to stem the hemorrhaging of the survivors, whose morale inevitably plummets.

What's intriguing about the comments to this story stems from the obvious: they arise spontaneously from scores of people who work for a living -- folks on the front lines of this perpetual struggle to get through the day, to the next paycheck, ultimately to the other end of a career. People just like you and me; we're all jugglers. Unlike other workplace issues, we're all in this one together, each trying to manage two simultaneous agendas, one personal and one professional. So it's important to listen to each other and learn.

  • You can't wish (Howard K.), wait (Keith R.), watch (Azima S.) or vomit (Decora) your way into flexibility.
  • If you want change, you have to have the strength and courage to make it happen, like ST (who refused overtime and got him/herself into a much better place) or Brian C. (who is energetically working on the front lines to eliminate commutes and work days for others as well as himself throughout Atlanta) and Paula R (who put in her notice and works now as she chooses to).
  • Barbara S. points out that taking time to be a parent teaches skills that are highly valuable in the workplace. Anne Crittenden said the same thing in her book If You've Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything.

Here are a few of the lessons I hear in these many voices:

Flexibility is useful to everyone who works and the organizations that employ them: women, men, boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, CEOs, bosses, part-time employees, full-time employees, exempt and non-exempt employees. This is as true today as it was 20 years ago, except now many more people are demanding and experiencing it. If your employer is offering flexibility primarily to one target group, such as mothers, you need to help broaden the initiative to be gender and generation neutral for one simple reason - everyone has a life.

There is still a lot of misinformation out there and workplaces that are resistant to change. Research shows that workplace flexibility can indeed be a win-win, both improving lives and strengthening business.

If you need help in doing this, seek it from neutral, data-rich sources like Alliance for Work-Life Progress, the Sloan Work & Family Research Network or the Families and Work Institute.

Get informed for your own survival!