This is the first in a Corporate Voices blog series exploring key themes discussed during the “Focus on Workplace Flexibility” national conference, held on November 29-30. This series aims to maintain the dialogue and forward momentum for expanding awareness about the positive business impacts of flexibility, how flexibility improves the lives of working families and what tools and resources exist to help employers implement flexibility policies and practices.

As we near the end of 2010, prospects for our economic growth look grim. More than 15 million Americans across the country are struggling to find work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on Friday that the unemployment rate rose to 9.8 percent in November, and that the number of long-term unemployed–those who have been out of work for six months of longer– has risen to 6.3 million.

These new developments fall against a backdrop of economic and demographic trends that have taken shape over the past decade. Earlier this year, the Census Bureau reported that the ranks of the working poor soared to their highest level in half a century in 2009, as nearly 44 million Americans were living below the poverty line. Inequality is also on the rise. America’s middle class saw its average household income decline 7 percent from 2000 to 2009. And today, the top one percent of earners represent 24 percent of national income. Mature workers, working learners, women, minorities and hourly workers are also powerful forces defining today’s labor market– and they are all facing increasing pressures balancing work and life.

These economic and demographic trends were the focus of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s national “Focus on Workplace Flexibility” conference, held on November 29-30 at Georgetown Law. A diverse group of over100 stakeholders from academia, business and industry, government and the military, and from the work-life community gathered to discuss how these changes are transforming work and family. They also discussed the critical need for an expansion of workplace flexibility to modernize the workplace to meet the needs of 21st century families, and to meet the demands of the global economy.

Kathleen Christensen, Program Director, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Photo: Jocelyn Augustino©2010

During the opening keynote, Kathleen Christensen, Program Director of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, said:

“15 years of research has shown that workplace flexibility is a crucial need for both workers and companies. Most American families are experiencing a ‘time famine.’ Today’s average family works over 80 hours per week, putting families under incredible pressures…workers are exhausted, and they are fed up with having to choose between work and family. Businesses of all sizes have proven that flexible workplaces are the most effective workplaces. [Despite this], 80 percent of Americans say they want workplace flexibility, but only a third report having it. That’s why it’s more important than ever for us to spread the word about workplace flexibility, and to continue to make the case that it is good for business. We’ll know when we have succeeded, not when everyone knows the term ‘workplace flexibility,’ but when no one uses the term anymore, because it has become a workplace standard, not a workplace alternative.”

The many imperatives to expand workplace flexibility were made clear at the conference. Barbara Schneider, a Professor at Michigan State University, explained how workplace flexibility decreases stress levels of working families and helps them balance the dual demands of work and life. Schneider discusses this issue further in the conference paper, “The Human Face of Workplace Flexibility.”

As Kathleen Christensen noted in her opening remarks, flexibility is also a critical management strategy for businesses to enhance recruitment efforts, and to increase employee productivity, engagement and retention. Reports such as Corporate Voices for Working Families’ “Business Impacts of Flexibility: An Imperative for Expansion,” and the Council of Economic Advisers’ “Work-Life Balance and the Economics of Workplace Flexibility” make the business case to expand flexibility clear and compelling. Administration officials at the conference, such as Betsey Stevenson, Chief Economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, and Christina M. Tchen, Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, emphasized workplace flexibility as a national priority, describing its potential to increase the participation of key talent in our labor force to improve our national economic competitiveness.

Christina M. Tchen, Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls. Photo: Jocelyn Augustino©2010

Christina Tchen said:

“It is ever more important now for all of us, both within and outside of government to keep driving home the message that workplace flexibility is not a luxury, not a giveaway, but a competitive imperative. It is a question of the competitiveness of our country. We are in a global competition for talent, for innovation, for economic growth. The rest of the world will not depend on 20th century methods to compete in the 21st century…if we do not change to become more responsive to the needs of our changing workforce, our country will be left behind…and the promise that we leave our children for a better and more prosperous future will be lost.”

As Corporate Voices’ President, Stephen M. Wing noted in a recently published special report on “Work-Life Balance:”

“…work-life balance has become an increasingly important issue—for the health and well-being of individuals and working families, and for our overall economic competitiveness. No longer are work-life policies seen as a ‘perk’ or accommodation for those at the top of the ladder. Today, business leaders, working mothers and fathers, advocates, community leaders, and local, state, and federal officials understand that our ability as a nation to harness the talent of our workforce to be globally competitive depends on family-friendly practices that help all workers manage both work and life.”

The theme of flexibility as a national imperative was echoed by Richard Johnson, Senior Fellow at The Urban Institute, who described the opportunities and challenges of workplace flexibility to keep mature workers engaged in the workforce as businesses seek to retain senior talent.  He discusses the use of flexibility to implement phased retirement options for mature workers further in, “Phased Retirement and Workplace Flexibility for Older Adults: Opportunities and Challenges.”

David Almeida, a Professor of Human Development at Pennsylvania State University, explored the role of flexibility in reducing stress and in turn, promoting better health, for hourly workers and their children. This is an issue he discusses in more depth in, “Workplace Flexibility and Daily Stress Processes in Hotel Employees and their Children.”

Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Photo: Jocelyn Augustino©2010

And Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed how flexibility can help military families, as nine years of war have put a new focus on families.

He said:

“We have to figure out a way to put our people and our families in the center of our universe and then move from there to generate the kind of success that we’re capable of.”

As some servicewomen have left the military and have started moving to the private sector to start a family, Admiral Mullen said that the military would do well to follow the example set by innovative businesses that have implemented flexibility successfully.

“We’re in a search for talent just like everybody else, and we have to figure out a way to answer that particular issue or we will be coming up short for a long time,” Mullen said.

Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, Professor of Family Studies and Director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University, echoed this point and emphasized how the military can use flexibility to recruit and retain top talent. She also focused on the important need to gain buy-in from leadership to support flexibility for successful implementation in her paper, “Military Families: Extreme Work and Extreme ‘Work-Family.'”

The afternoon panel shone a spotlight on best-practice employer examples of flexibility at Deere & Company, Solix, Inc., Cardinal Health, Bon Secours Virginia Health System and Menlo Innovations. But while innovative companies are embracing flexibility as a strategy for success, important gaps still remain in educating the wider business community about the business benefits of flexibility, and in implementation.

Overcoming the education gap still remains a significant challenge– one which Corporate Voices is meeting through its national workplace flexibility campaign. Through this national campaign, Corporate Voices is seeking to raise awareness for the positive business and employee benefits of flexibility, and to gain the momentum needed to expand flexibility within the wider business community.

Overcoming the implementation gap remains the final hurdle to expanding flexibility. Useful, accessible tools, like Corporate Voices’ “Workplace Flexibility Toolkits for Hourly Employees and Managers,” and other resources, will be key to giving employers and employees the tools they need to effectively implement flexibility practices for success in the 21st century.