08/23/2012 12:34 pm ET Updated Oct 23, 2012

The Business Case for Workplace Flexibility: How Employers and Employees Can "Have it All"

"Job Killer." Those are the two words you are most likely to hear uttered by most American CEOs when confronted with proposals to enact family-friendly work policies.

This was true in the battles for earned sick days, paid maternity leave, increases in the minimum wage, and even workplace flexibility. Sure, there are exceptions. In fact, the exceptions are the employers who are doing well -- in fact better than their competitors -- by doing good for their employees.

If we are to create a new agenda for family/work policies, employers and employees have to take a seat at the same table and recognize their mutual gains. Working families have a better chance to "have it all" -- a job and a family -- in a family friendly workplace. Likewise, businesses are better positioned "to have it all" -- profitability and worker loyalty when they can create a family friendly workplace.

It's become unrealistic to expect employers to provide workplace flexibility because of a belief in gender equality or because bosses want to be nice to workers.  Employers believe, and rightly so, that it is their job to make money.  The challenge facing advocates for fair family/work policies is to provide evidence that these policies are money makers; they can boost the bottom line over the long term.  It's not as tough a sale as one might think.

Workplace flexibility can be a strategic business tool for managing today's workforce, rather than an expensive new benefit.  The benefits most often accrue to both employees and employers because the most competitive commodity for any business today is not how many hours are worked, but how much skill and knowledge each worker brings to the task.  Evidence has accumulated that the ability to attract and retain talent increases profits and reduces costs thereby, increasing shareholder confidence.

Savings can be substantial. James Wall, recently retired vice president for diversity and human resources at Deloitte, became alarmed when the company's investment in recruiting and training women evaporated because of the leaky pipeline. Looking at a list of 100 candidates for partnership he found only seven women. After implementing a multi-year program to change the culture about family/work policies, the number of women eligible for partnership rose to 41.  He told me:  "The cost of turnover in a knowledge-intensive business is somewhere between three and five times the salary of the person at the point they leave." He estimated that a one percent drop in turnover would result in a $1 million reduction in costs. "If you dropped it five percent, you were talking real money. When we ran these calculations to our partners who were serious doubters and even they said, maybe I need to pay closer attention, there's something there."

What is true for Deloitte's highly skilled workforce is also be true for many entry-level employees when employers find that without further investment in training, these workers lack the skills to do rudimentary work.  A skilled worker, regardless of the job description, remains a treasure.

If the benefits of workplace flexibility options have already been proven, why aren't more businesses providing them? Partly, it's a mindset. For one thing, we are stuck in a sentimental Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post portrait of the American family which portrays father walking out the door, briefcase in hand, while mother, wearing a pinafore, waves good-bye from the doorway, with one perfect child at either side.  That's the way it was, and that's the way work remains, with the assumption that there is one breadwinner taking care of the family. He can work long hours, not worry about the home front, because mother is there to take care of the children and Grandma and bake apple pie.

The family structure has changed dramatically since those seemingly perfect days, because in 80 percent of today's families, both mom and dad go off to work, or a single mom, holding the hand of the toddler, walks out the door.   The workplace, however, has hardly budged from its traditional configuration.

For one thing, we have to modify our belief that face-time and the number of hours worked are essential to productivity.   To make flexibility work, it is not only necessary to change our attitude about who is a good worker and who is not, but we have to train managers at all levels to recognize the difference between the number of hours worked and the quality of work produced.  

More analysis, tailored to each individual business enterprise, will be needed, but we need not wait to affirm what common sense already tells us.  A worker who knows that her or his employer understands that she has responsibilities outside of the workplace and will make accommodations to help the employee meet them, will be eternally grateful.  That gratitude will take the form of increased loyalty and reduced turnover, with a payback in increased productivity. The United States is an outlier when it comes to family-friendly policies.  For example, out of 178 countries, the U.S. is one of three that does not offer some form of paid maternity leave. The other two are Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.
We know that the opportunity to have workplace flexibility is the number one issue for working women, from women in top management positions, to hourly workers.  Increasingly the call for greater flexibility is echoed by men as they assume a greater share of taking care of the children, the elderly, as well as, albeit only some of, the shopping, the cooking, and the cleaning and dentist appointments.
The ultimate benefit of flexibility for an employee is to have some control over one's life.  When Anne-Marie Slaughter left the number three post at the State Department because of her need to spend time with her son going through a difficult adolescence, she didn't go back to being a professor at Princeton to put an apron on.  She went back to a demanding position -- teaching a full course-load, writing books, traveling, speaking, and appearing on television. But she had what she wanted most, the ability to say "no" when necessary, the ability "to work things out" when there was a conflict between her family and her work.  Women who do not have the power to negotiate on their own to get the same flexibility that Prof. Slaughter has, will continue to need understanding bosses, and most importantly, work in a culture that sees flexibility not as a special favor, but as the normal way of doing business.

Flexibility can take many forms, including the scheduling of hours worked including shift and break schedules, the amount of hours worked such as flex time and part time, and the place of work, such as telecommuting.  With the growing sophistication of technology, the possibilities for work place flexibility are endless. Regardless of how flexibility is achieved, at different stages of employee's lives, in different work situations, there is one core value that underlies them all.

There has to be trust between the employer and the employee.  The invention of the time clock, no doubt, was based on a lack of trust.  People, it was assumed, would cheat on how much time they put in. Being fired for being late is not uncommon. 

It is time to relieve the tight regulations that many businesses (many of which denounce government regulations) impose on their workers, and begin to look at results. Productivity can no longer be exclusively measured by where one works, how one works, or how long one works. Those countries that succeed in retaining women in the workplace are most likely to continue to grow and prosper, according to the World Economic Forum.  It's simple math.

It's time for a new conversation to begin, not as a shouting match with words like "job killer", but with a sensible dialogue.  The focus must be on the well being of the family as it exists today and on the workplace, as it must become tomorrow. Our shared goal is to enable moms and dads to be both good care givers and good providers and businesses to move towards increased competitiveness and profitability.   If we sit at the same table, we are sure to find some common ground.

Author Madeleine M. Kunin served three terms as the governor of Vermont, as well as the U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland during the Clinton Administration. Her latest book is The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work and Family (Chelsea Green, 2012).