A White House forum focused on workplace flexibility March 31, 2010, including appearances by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama and comments by the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) director of government affairs.
The forum featured representatives from the federal government, including Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis; workers; labor leaders; researchers; academics; small business owners; corporate executives and nonprofit organizations.
Michael Aitken, SHRM’s director of government affairs, cautioned participants in one session that workplace flexibility should not be legislated or mandated.
“Be careful of the types of policies and programs we bring in [through legislation],” he said, because in doing so “you cut off some of that innovation.”
“You have to have the incentives and the type of environment that encourage employers to experiment” with different flexibility models, Aitken continued. Workplace flexibility “has to work not only for the employee but it has to work for the employer. What we’ve seen in successful programs, it’s been win-win.”
The President’s Council of Economic Advisers released a 35-page report, Work-Life Balance and the Economics of Workplace Flexibility, in conjunction with the forum. The report, as did many forum participants, cited the changing face of the workforce, which is prompting increased interest in flexible work arrangements. For example:
In 1950, women comprised about 30 percent of the labor force; in 2009, they comprised nearly half.
In 1968, 25 percent of children lived in households in which both parents worked full time; in 2008, nearly 50 percent did so.
In 2008, 43.5 million Americans—mostly women—served as unpaid caregivers to a family member over the age of 50.
In 2008, nearly one-fifth of employed people were caregivers to a person over age 50.
Balancing their responsibilities is “an issue many folks have struggled with for so many years and one that we as a society still haven’t figured out yet,” Michelle Obama said during the forum’s opening session.
Given the recent economic slump, “many folks can’t afford to be picky about the job they take … so they’re struggling every day” to make elder and child care arrangements, she added.
“Flexible policies actually make employees more—not less—productive,” she said. “Instead of spending time worrying about what’s happening at home, employees have the support and the peace of mind they need to concentrate at work, which is good for their families and the bottom line.”
Commentary throughout the sessions touched on a range of flexibility issues, including:
The importance of leaders modeling flexible behavior.
The importance of getting buy-in from front-line supervisors and communicating to supervisors that the organization values and expects workplace flexibility.
The need to remove the gender connection from flexibility, where appropriate.
The disparity in accessibility to flexible work arrangements among low-wage workers, many of whom work multiple jobs.
The need to do a better job communicating success stories.
The need for data on successful workplace flexibility programs.
SHRM notes on its web site that it supports voluntary paid leave programs and policies that assist employees in balancing work and family demands. It recommends that federal and state governments support employers’ efforts to provide paid leave.
SHRM CEO Laurence G. O’Neil said in a May 7, 2009, letter to legislators that the global HR organization is committed to leading all stakeholders in discussion about workplace flexibility in the 21st century workplace but that it is time “to encourage paid leave—without creating more arcane federal regulations.”
SHRM included copies of its “Principles for a 21st Century Workplace Flexibility Policy” with those letters. SHRM sees the principles as representing a new approach to federal leave policy by encouraging employers to provide paid leave voluntarily in exchange for relief from complex federal rules.
“We believe employers should be encouraged to provide the paid leave their workforces need,” O’Neil wrote, “and let employees decide how to use it.”
The White House forum was streamed live over the Internet. Transcripts of the opening session and the president’s and first lady’s remarks are available at: http://www.http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/president-and-first-lady-host-white-house-forum-workplace-flexibility.
Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Workplace Flexibility Report Adds to National Debate, HR News, May 14, 2009
Workplace Flexibility Has 'Bottom-Line' Implications, HR News, May 13, 2008
Workplace Flexibility in the 21st Century: Meeting the Needs of the Changing Workforce Survey Report, SHRM Research, Aug. 3, 2009
HR Congressional Monitor—Workplace Flexibility, SHRM Advocacy, 111th CongressWorkplace Flexibility, SHRM Advocacy