Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement. Photo: Jocelyn Augustino©2010

Chrysula Winegar has contributed this post as a Featured Guest Blogger. This is the sixth post in a Corporate Voices for Working Families blog series exploring key themes discussed during the Alfred P. 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.

Employers scratch their heads and lament over workforce preparedness. Community after community bemoans their school systems and an entire country appears to be slipping behind in global educational standards. School administrators, government officials, teachers, parents and the data on successful schools all point to a large part of the solution being increased parental involvement.

Women are outpacing men in undergraduate and post graduate qualifications and entire professions like accounting are noticing that an increasing portion, even the majority of their talent pool, is women. But women still have the babies.

Health care professionals fret over potential pandemics and their weaker but equally serious epidemic cousins.

Snow storms and other disasters shut down cities and the world’s most powerful government for days.

Our population ages and the notion of retirement gets turned on its head. Retirees are staying in the workforce. And when they do leave, there simply aren’t enough options for professional care later in life, let alone the money to pay for them. Families trying to take care of their own are all still working themselves, often still raising their own kids or putting them through college.

A generation marked by absent fathers is flatly refusing to replicate those models now that it’s their turn to be Dad. They want more than to coach the soccer team. And so do their spouses.

A new digital generation, savvy, and hungry for meaning, is willing to work and full of ideas, but not in a straight-jacket of nonsensical rules of workplace engagement. They state almost uniformly that money and balance are equally important. So too flexibility, creativity and freedom. They won’t be clock-watched. What are the boomers going to do about it?

For years the work life conversation has been put in the box of “it’s a mother’s issue”. That should have been enough, given our professed national reverence for children and motherhood. But it had an opposite affect, somehow marginalizing mothers in the workforce. It provided ‘evidence’ that if they had to leave at 5pm for the daycare run, then they just couldn’t stand the heat of the contemporary workplace, especially if they needed special policies to help them navigate their way through it.

The Sloan Foundation’s Focus on Workplace Flexibility conference a couple of months ago in Washington, D.C. talked data, presented research on nearly all of the workplace challenges highlighted in this post. And plenty more not listed. The vast reach of workplace flexibility policies and their potential impact throughout fundamental elements of our economy was reiterated.  And reiterated. And reiterated. Flexibility has the potential to be a system-wide contributing solution to some of this country’s most critical challenges. Keynote speaker and Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett assured the audience these issues were being explored in great detail in the West Wing and surrounds, and being taken seriously at the highest levels of government.

As Kathleen Christensen, Program Director of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation said,

“There is no other time but right now for workplace flexibility.”

But can you legislate for flexibility? Should there be a national policy? Here we arrive at more complex territory. The market should be able to take care of it, right? For example, why should government tell an employer that they must provide a lactation room for their nursing mother employees?

When you’ve fought tooth and nail for a place that wasn’t on public view or a bathroom stall to provide milk for your child — milk that would strengthen both her and your health outcomes, minimize sick days and engender deep loyalty — you don’t wonder why an employer wouldn’t provide such a space, no matter how small. You just know that they didn’t, or they made continuing to breastfeed very difficult. When it comes time to fight that battle a second time, you simply walk, and take your intellectual capital with you. For every forward-thinking employer who grasps these kinds of initiatives and understands their knock-on effect throughout the system, there are so many more penalizing and docking pay for women taking “too many breaks” to lactate. It is but one of a myriad of examples. Legislation seems an unfair burden and yet here we are. Those companies that understand the strategic business benefits do not need to deal with yet another legislative burden. Alas, they are (still) too few and far between.

Paid carer’s leave and paid sick leave are potentially the most effective policy initiatives that could benefit from greater national urgency. Data emerging from California’s paid leave program has some positive things to report. Not the horror story employers anticipated by a long shot. Thousands of companies throughout the country already provide these benefits, most perceiving their provision as a business win-win.

Having said that, you cannot ultimately legislate flexibility. It is a person by person, family by family, company by company deal. By very definition, rules around flexibility seem entirely oxymoronic – those entities that have applied flexibility in rigid ways have met with failure. So what does it mean to have flexible practices under the national spotlight? Some baseline legislative priorities, yes. But more critically, constant discussion from the office at the top, about what it means, and more linkage to the broader systemic issues under the partial umbrella of workforce flexibility.  If this is “not just a women’s issue” (Pres Obama, March 2010) then perhaps it is time to take the flex discussion wider than the White House Council on Women and Girls.

More consistent vocalization and agitation and pushing of interested parties such as employer and HR lobby groups is needed to get beyond lip service of the notion that contemporary living is now infinitely more complex. Greater flexibility from unions to think more strategically about where the workplace train is headed. First Lady Michelle Obama has taken the microphone on this topic repeatedly. Back in March 2010 President Obama added his imprimatur. Many are anxiously and curiously awaiting the early results of the Office of Personnel Management’s experiment with ROWE (Results Only Work Environment). If the Federal Government can demonstrate efficiencies and innovative in this space, perhaps we will be on to something.

People don’t necessarily want work-life balance or work-life integration. They want a life that makes sense! That gives them a decent salary or wage in exchange for good hard work. This country’s social issues are morphing faster than we can possibly keep up with. To some degree, the major challenges of health and wellness, education and productivity can all be mitigated by reforming workplace practices to truly embrace flexibility and remove forever the stigma of the daycare run. Or chemo with Mom. Or leading the reading group at the local school. Or the 15 minutes to deal with the insurance company. Or … This is real life for all of us, and the implications are deeply inter-connected. When are we going to wake up and start thinking in terms of our entire system?