SHRM Seeks to Encourage, not Mandate, Workplace Flexibility

By Kathy Gurchiek May 18, 2010
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The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) continued its discussion of “The Future of Work-Life Balance and Workplace Flexibility” in a panel discussion that the New America Foundation hosted in Washington, D.C., May 13, 2010.

The previous day, SHRM co-sponsored a panel discussion on “The State of the Workforce in the New Economy.” On March 31, 2010, it participated in a White House forum on workplace flexibility.

Workplace flexibility is an issue that has gained importance with employers and employees, observed Michael Aitken, SHRM’s director of government affairs and a panelist at the May 13 and March 31 forums.

Critically important to the discussion, he said, “is not to see it as just an issue for women or individuals with young children. It’s an issue that works its way through an individual’s life cycle.”

Aiken outlined the various forms workplace flex options can take:

  • Telecommuting.
  • Job-sharing a full-time position.
  • Compressed work weeks.
  • Paid time off that does not distinguish among personal, sick and vacation days.
  • Myriad of flexible work arrangements that can include full-time telecommuting or adjusting a work schedule occasionally.
  • Results-oriented work environment. Aiken pointed to Best Buy as an exampleof a business where a worker is judged on output, not hours. “We believe employers should be encouraged to provide paid leave and to provide flexible work options. The key word there is ‘encourage,’ ” Aitken said. SHRM does not want to see government mandate flexible arrangements.

One obstacle employers run into is that “in trying to be creative and innovative, they run smack dab into violating federal and state regulations,” he added, noting that some states, for example, are trying to tax employees for telecommuting.

There are regulatory challenges regarding when the work day ends, given how technology has blurred those boundaries, he said. A nonexempt employee who checks his or her BlackBerry at 11 p.m., for example, is considered to be putting in compensable time under federal regulations.

The employer needs flexibility to adapt its work/life options to its community and organization, Aiken said.

“Not every [workplace] environment always lends itself to the same type of approach. What may work in a manufacturing environment may not work in a hospital. What works in a union environment may not work in a nonunion environment.”

Aitken was part of a forum that included Kathleen Christensen, Ph.D., director of the Workplace, Work Force and Working Families Program at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; Heather Boushey, senior economist for the Center for American Progress; and Katie Corrigan, director of Workplace Flexibility 2010 at the Georgetown University Law Center. David Gray, director of the Workforce and Family Program at the New America Foundation, was moderator.

The world continues to operate on an antiquated business model in a 21st century work environment, pointed out Christensen, co-editor of Workplace Flexibility: Realigning 20th Century Jobs for the 21st Century Workforce (Ilr, 2010).

“It’s a workplace that has been defined as work being done year in and year out, work being done on a full-time, full-year basis with little to no time off for personal or family reasons, that the career paths are continuous and linear—[people] get on in their 20s and off in their 60s and retirement [is] at 65,” Christensen said.

“But the reality is there is a mismatch. You’ve got a workforce that’s changed dramatically, and you’ve got a workplace that hasn’t changed,” and the result is a cost to families with “paid work crowding out much of their life,” she observed.

“There is a real time famine,” she said.

For the first time, men are reporting higher levels of work/family conflict than women, with women appearing to have “reached the saturation point of conflict,” Christensen said.

“The core issue is that the arithmetic of the family has changed.” In the traditional family—which is now in the minority—there were two adults. One was working and one stayed home. “In the last quarter of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century, there were two breadwinning jobs and one homemaking job and still only two adults. And this cuts across all income groups.”

Even if there is complete gender equality within families, “there would still be a structural overload,” and it becomes even more difficult for single-parent and single-earner families, she added.

Workplace flexibility, she said, has to be seen as a strategic business tool, not a perk, and not solely an issue for those with child-caring responsibilities.

“It has to be proportionally fair to both employees and employers, equally available to hourly and salary [employees].”

Kathy Gurchiek is an associate editor at HR News. She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org.

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