A newly released report published today by the Council of Economic Advisers gives a very good overview of the major demographic changes that have occurred in America in the past half century, the current state of workplace flexibility, and outlines the economic benefits workplace flexibility policies offer to businesses and society.
The report, titled “Work-Life Balance and the Economics of Workplace Flexibility,” was released at the start of the White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility. The Forum was organized by the White House Council on Women and Girls to allow the President and the First Lady to learn from leaders in business, labor, and policy experts how various sectors of the economy make the workplace work for American families and businesses in the 21st Century. Corporate Voices for Working Families played a leading role in helping to plan and organize this Forum over the past several weeks, and Donna Klein, Corporate Voices’ executive chair and founder, was included in the small group that met at the White House for this Forum.
Among the notable demographic trends the report cites are: women now comprise nearly half of the U.S. workforce, and in nearly half of all households, all adults are working. As the elderly are living longer, more workers are finding themselves being caregivers to a person over age 50, and more working adults are going back to school while working at the same time. Clearly, today’s working families are facing a much bigger challenge balancing work and family obligations than the workforce of the 1960s.
Although many employers have adapted to the changing American workforce, a cultural shift has not yet occurred in the business community as a whole over the benefits of workplace flexibility. Many employers still think of it as a benefit or a perk, and do not think of it in terms of a talent management and retention tool. The report says that over half of employers say they allow flexibility in working hours, however less than one third of full-time workers report having flexible work hours. This may be due to differences in data collection, or the fact that employees are unaware of what their employers will allow.
The report, which cites Corporate Voices’ studies on workplace flexibility widely, also states that less-skilled workers have less workplace flexibility options than more highly skilled workers. Corporate Voices believes that flexibility promotes worker productivity and engagement with hourly as well as professional workers, and has recently published toolkits for both workers and managers to use as a guide to implement and request flexible workplace arrangements.
In terms of the benefits of workplace flexibility, the evidence suggests that encouraging more companies to offer flexibility options can potentially boost productivity, improve morale, and benefit the economy as a whole. Companies can benefit by reduced absenteeism, lower turnover, and helping to improve worker health and productivity while at work. Society can also benefit by having more productive workers, and flexibility policies can help incorporate people into the workforce that may have not been able to join before, due to physical disabilities or other reasons. And a larger workforce means a larger tax base.
While many companies still think of flexibility as a benefit that will incur a cost to implement without any corresponding returns on investment, only information sharing and a campaign to educate the business community can help turn the tide toward a more life-friendly 21st Century workplace.