A Flexible Workplace for the 21st Century.

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Category: Organizational Behavior

Ellen Bravo is Executive Director of Family Values@Work, a network of 15 state coalitions working for family-friendly policies. She also teaches a class on Family-Friendly Work Practices in UWM’s Masters in Human Resources and Labor Relations program.

A metal processor said that workers at his company receive two disciplinary points for being even five minutes late. Between childcare emergencies and traffic during his hour-long commute, he accrues enough points every year to put him at risk for termination—a source of significant stress.

A temp worker recalls that she took only four weeks of leave after her daughter’s birth. She wanted to take the full 12 weeks permitted under the FMLA but needed to work to pay the bills.

These workers are among many I have spoken to across the country who are concerned about workplace flexibility. Although some employers are doing an excellent job, it is often the managers, not workers, defining “flexibility.” And their interpretation is frequently: “Flexibility means we can schedule you whenever we want,” or “Our leave policy is:  if you leave, don’t come back.”

But businesses must adopt true flexibility, if they want to retain staff. Contemporary parents do not have the luxury of full-time child care at home, and many families also care for aging grandparents. Fortunately, businesses are adapting. At forums organized by the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, employers from all sectors have demonstrated practices that fit these realities.

I met workers still pursuing a career who could adjust their start and end times, take paid leave when needed, and work reduced hours, if desired. I heard workers describe innovative programs they helped design, such as team scheduling and cross training. In each case, these employees believe they are more productive and more effective.

Yet, for most workers, flexibility is illusory and risky. Juggling a career and a family is a constant struggle. In fact, women are disproportionately affected by inflexibility; fathers wish they had more time with their kids, and workers at all levels want more time with elderly parents.

Employee Frustration

Workers have identified scheduling demands—unpredictable shifts and mandatory overtime with little or no notice—as key sources of conflict between their responsibilities at work and at home. Little to no leeway for arriving late, leaving early or taking time mid-day for family or medical emergencies adds to their frustration. These workers also lack access to paid sick time and risk workplace discipline or termination for taking time off.  And professionals who have negotiated flexibility risk being seen as uncommitted and too family focused.

For many manufacturing industry workers, “flexibility” means outsourcing jobs to temporary workers who perform the same tasks at lower wages—without benefits or job security and with unpredictable shifts. “Flexibility” can also mean workers who have survived layoffs must produce the same volume with fewer resources.

Employee Recommendations

Workers propose solutions that research has already shown to be effective. Basic flexibility at work and managers who understand their needs would help enhance productivity and profitability, while protecting their own well-being. As one worker put it, “If you’re happy and your customers are happy, that’s making your business grow.”

Workers also believe the government should develop new standards, like paid sick days and family leave insurance programs, and promote awareness of existing laws like the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Next Steps

Paid sick days and paid family leave are two policies gaining national support, in part, because they have proven to be successful. What policies might you enact to promote workplace flexibility?

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