Dina Bakst, Co-Founder & Co-President of A Better Balance:  The Work & Family Legal Center, has contributed this post as a Featured Guest Blogger. This is the fourth post in a Corporate Voices blog series exploring key themes discussed during the Sloan Foundation’s “Focus on Workplace Flexibility” national conference, held on November 29-30, 2010. This series aims to continue the dialogue and forward momentum for expanding awareness about the positive business impacts of flexibility, how flexibility improves the lives of working families and about what tools and resources exist to help employers implement flexibility policies and practices.  This series also aims to represent the different perspectives on an important issue affecting the lives of working families. The views expressed in this blog series are those of the writers and contributors.

U.S. families today are experiencing greater work-life conflict than ever before.    The pressure from demanding, and often unpredictable work schedules, is taking a major toll on the health and well-being of parents and their children.

Workplace flexibility is not only critical to the lives of American families– it’s essential to the bottom line.   Research continually confirms that flexible work arrangements enhance productivity, increase retention and improve loyalty.   (For more on the business case for workplace flexibility, see A Better Balance’s new fact sheet.)

At last month’s Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s national  “Focus on Workplace Flexibility” conference, a number of researchers and progressive employers discussed these benefits in great detail.  One key theme emerged from this conversation:  workplace flexibility is not only about programs and policies, it is about creating a culture of flexibility.

Creating a culture of flexibility, where flexibility is not viewed as a perk but a strategic business tool, is imperative in today’s globally competitive economy.   First, when employees feel they can openly communicate their need for flexibility with their managers, they are more productive at work.  According to Lawrence Root and Alford Young’s study of workers at a mid-size manufacturing plant, a sympathetic supervisor provides the greatest legitimacy and is the least disruptive to the operation of an organization.   When flexibility isn’t built into the workplace, workers either develop informal coping mechanisms to meet pressing family obligations or take independent action in direct defiance of the rules– which has the potential to severely disrupt a company’s operation.

Second, creating a culture of flexibility is a key retention strategy.  The loss of key talent can be devastating to a company’s performance.   Progressive employers recognize this.  For example, Richard Sheridan, the C.E.O. of Menlo Innovations, a software company based in Ann Arbor, MI, spoke about how creating a flexible work culture– even allowing new parents to bring their babies to work with them– has resulted in a happier, more satisfied workforce.   Turnover at Menlo Innovations is 4 percent and absenteeism is less than 1 percent.

Progressive employers recognize another key fact about creating a flexible culture:  support from management is critical.   When top leaders integrate workplace flexibility throughout company systems and ensure that employees who utilize flexible work arrangements are supported, not penalized, it is more likely employees will feel comfortable taking advantage of them.   As John Parry, the C.E.O. of Solix Inc., a process-outsourcing firm based in Parsippany, NJ remarked,

Not only do I provide a job, but an opportunity to move ahead.

This is not a minor distinction– it reflects real leadership and dedication to making flexible work a viable option for Solix employees.

Flexibility is the foundation of being an employer of choice.   According to Ted Childs, former head of Global Diversity at IBM, failure to recognize the importance of workplace flexibility in today’s global war for talent is a “going out of business strategy.”   The data is clear:  more workers than ever want flexibility, yet 36 percent still worry they will pay a price for taking advantage of it.   Creating a flexible work culture, where leadership is intentional about supporting and rewarding employees on flexible schedules, is a win-win for employers and employees.