Building on the momentum of last year’s White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility, the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor held a National Dialogue on Workplace Flexibility in Pasadena, CA on Thursday, February 17 focusing on the unique challenges and solutions of using flexibility with an hourly workforce.

This National Dialogue in Pasadena was followed by a Regional Dialogue in Seattle, WA the next day, which focused on workplace flexibility in the health care industry. Both highlighted best practices among local employers that have demonstrated their use of flexibility as a strategic recruitment, retention and management tool for work-life and business success.

Over 450 participants representing the business, research, advocacy, government and labor communities attended the Pasadena Dialogue, where Joan C. Williams of the Center for WorkLife Law described the challenges facing today’s businesses and working families:

“Today’s workplaces are designed for 1960s’ families. 70 percent of American families with children have all adults working… Americans are living longer today and hospitals release patients quicker and sicker, relying on relatives to nurse ill family members back to health… We need to modernize the workplace to meet the challenges of the 21st century workforce.”

Williams went on to outline the unique situation and challenges facing the one-third of Americans who hold low-wage hourly jobs, as detailed in her new report, “Improving Work-Life Fit in Hourly Jobs: An Underutilized Cost-Cutting Strategy in a Globalized World.” Williams’ report draws heavily from a report Corporate Voices for Working Families published in 2009, “Innovative Workplace Flexibility Options for Hourly Workers,” which was researched and written by WFD Consulting, with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

The thrust of Williams’ report emphasizes that both the schedule instability (last-minute scheduling changes at work) and excessive schedule rigidity (inability to change break times or shift schedules) common with low-wage hourly jobs is simply incompatible with the lives of low-income families and the realities they face. Many low-income families have to raise children, care for an ill family member, and often have to cope with frequent and serious health problems in the family. Scheduling instability and rigidity, then, create child care and elder care conflicts which often result in high rates of absenteeism– 500 percent for some businesses– and in a pattern of “serial quitting” among low-wage hourly workers.

As Secretary Hilda Solis said during the opening remarks:

“It is very hard for someone who works in an hourly low-wage job to take time off– there is a fear on the part of the employee for retaliation [for caring for a family member]….As we work to out-educate and out-innovate the rest of the world, we need employers and employees to work together to create a better balance in work-life issues.”

Williams’ report frames “work-life fit” and the use of workplace flexibility as a strategy for businesses to adopt more effective schedule techniques to better retain their workers, lower their turnover rates, lower labor costs and therefore be more competitive in the global economy. As Williams said:

“Flexibility is about competitiveness, it’s about women’s economic empowerment and it’s about the global war for talent…If we apply human intelligence to scheduling, and to breaking old habits, we can use flexibility to harness the talent in our labor market and to increase economic self-sufficiency for the low-wage segment of the workforce.”

The employers on the panel at the Pasadena Dialogue gave clear examples of how flexibility helped improve their competitive edge. Rosalind Hudnell, Chief Diversity Officer and Global Director of Education and External Relations at Intel said that with 11,000 hourly workers in the U.S., the company’s “manufacturing technicians are the heart and soul of our businesses.” Intel offers flexible scheduling, a parenting re-integration program and reimbursements for back-up child care as ways to promote better work-life balance and lower turnover.

And Jennifer Piallat, Owner of Zazie Restaurant, showed how effective scheduling can lead to enhanced business performance in the small business and restaurant industry. Piallat offers her restaurant staff 401 (k) retirement accounts, a health plan and fixed, long-term schedules. Workers who need an extra day off or need to swap shifts arrange for a co-worker to cover their shift. Piallat says that in an industry with high turnover, she hasn’t had to hire new staff in five years. Why does she offer her hourly workers these benefits? She said:

“Before I owned Zazie, I worked at a restaurant for 20 years, and I was always one month away from being homeless.”

So although empathy plays a role in how Piallat manages her hourly workers, she also sees the direct payoff. Zazie has the highest labor costs compared to other local restaurants, but it also has the highest profitability and the highest retention of workers.

In Seattle the next day, Ellen Galinsky presented data from the Family and Work Institute’s 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce, which showed that 75 percent of employers in the health care industry use flexibility as a strategy to meet organizational goals, compared to 65 percent of employers in other industries. In health services–an industry that is 75 percent female– therefore, flexibility is commonly seen as a business strategy, and not an “accommodation” for employees.

Maureen O’Keefe, Vice President of Human Resources and Strategic Planning for St. Luke’s Regional Medical Center in Boise, ID, described the flexible work options and supports the Center offers its workers, including: telework, shift work, job-sharing, on-site daycare and walk-in clinics for ill staff members. St. Luke’s also offers flexible schedules for students who are continuing their education. O’Keefe said:

“We approach flexibility as a business need– to change the delivery model of health care.”

Kimberly Giglio, Director of Talent Acquisition at Multi-Care Hospitals in Tacoma, WA, also described how her clinics use flexibility to offer workers a way to balance the dual demands of work and life, and to specifically complete on-site degrees and apprenticeship programs.

The common thread running through the discussions at the Pasadena and Seattle Flexibility Dialogues was that workplace flexibility is a business imperative that applies to many industries, to large businesses and small, and can be used to reduce labor costs with a low-wage, hourly workforce to give businesses a competitive advantage in the global economy.

Corporate Voices has long believed in the business imperative for flexibility, and has published research highlighting how it can effectively be used with an hourly workforce. Corporate Voices has also published useful implementation toolkits to help expand the use of flexibility within the wider business community. And, it launched a national workplace flexibility campaign after the White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility to create a broader awareness of the positive business and employee benefits of flexibility. It is now showcasing best-practice employers as “Business Champions” in this national campaign.

As Secretary Solis said in Pasadena– as we work to out-educate and out-innovate the rest of the world, let’s also recognize how effective uses of flexibility can help modernize our workplaces to better meet the needs of 21st century families and businesses, so we can be prepared to “win the future.”

By Judi Casey

I am thrilled to inform you that the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation announced funding for the Work and Family Researchers Network, a social and virtual connector for interdisciplinary work-family researchers based at the University of Pennsylvania. The new Network builds on the well-established Alfred P. Sloan Work and Family Research Network that has operated at Boston College since 1997.  Sloan Foundation support will enable the current Network to transition from a Foundation-funded project to a sustainable organization enhancing future work-family scholarship.

“This represents an exciting new stage for the Work and Family Research Network,” said Kathleen E. Christensen, Program Director, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “This is a new and unique model for professional societies that includes an innovative open access web platform that will provide a new level of community in which scholars can share their work and ideas – at all stages of development.”

University of Pennsylvania Sociology Professor Jerry A. Jacobs, a leading work-family scholar, will be the principal investigator and executive officer of the new Network.  I will continue to be the director of the new Network via a subcontract to Boston College.

“The challenges of combining work and family confront a large and growing segment of American society,” said Jerry Jacobs, who has conducted research on this topic for fifteen years. “This grant provides an exciting opportunity to bring together scholars and researchers from diverse disciplines, to communicate more effectively, to share ideas and to advance the ability of America’s institutions to address the needs of our nation’s families.”

By relocating to the University of Pennsylvania, the new Network will be able to draw upon the skills and resources of Penn’s renowned Population Studies Center, the Wharton School and more than 20 interdisciplinary work-family scholars located in 8 different schools across the university.

The Work and Family Researchers Network will be comprised of a virtual online community, a membership organization, biennial conferences and two new cohorts of the successful Early Career Scholars Program.  An innovative open access web platform will be built with similar benefits to the current Network but at significantly lower costs.  This is a natural evolution of the Network’s existing model of staff-produced content to a decentralized, user-based model of community resource generation and dissemination.

Capitalizing on the latest technological advancements, the new website will include an open access repository of academic work-family literature including journal articles, reports and working papers, a ‘news tagging’ system for updates in the field, a Who’s Who database as well as a document download center archiving much of the current Network content.

The membership network will have many of the characteristics of a professional society, but more importantly, members will be the driving force behind populating the site with content as well as contributing dues to ensure sustainability.  Over 150 scholars have already signed on as either Founding (senior scholars) or Sponsoring (junior scholars) members.

The synergy between the integrated open access and membership components of the Work and Family Researchers Network will offer an exciting new organizational model for 21st century work-family research and scholarship.  The next generation Network will significantly contribute to the vitality of academic work-family scholarship and ensure that high quality work-family content continues to be available and accessible on the World Wide Web into the future.

Jerry Jacobs and I are so grateful to the Sloan Foundation for this opportunity and will be providing you with more information about the new Network over the next few months.  During the transition, all the information and resources of the Sloan Network will continue to be available to you.

 

Judi Casey is currently the Principal Investigator and Director of the Sloan Work and Family Research Network at the Boston College Graduate School of Social Work. She was hired as the Director of the Network in September 2005. Prior to the Network, she worked at the Boston College Center for Work & Family in various roles for the past 15 years.

When interviewing for a job, how do you really know if the employer offers family-friendly policies, including flexible work schedules? That’s the subject of an informative article in the Miami Herald by Cindy Krischer Goodman, “Dream job offer? Here’s how to make sure it’s not a nightmare in disguise.

Goodman talked to a number of experts who offered a number of tips to job seekers, including the following: check the organization’s website, talk to current and former employees, review “best company” lists available online, take advantage of your social network and consider Google and other Internet searches.

Among those interviewed for the article was Stephen M. Wing, President of Corporate Voices for Working Families. He shared a number of perspectives based on the research conducted over the years by Corporate Voices and from the best practices of our partner companies. Here’s from the article:

 

Stephen Wing, president of Corporate Voices for Working Families says companies now realize that flexibility is the number one benefit most workers want, which makes getting past lip service tricky. “You really want to ask open-ended questions about their policy.”
Also from the article:

 

Before signing up for your dream job that might become a nightmare, you need to dig deeper into the company culture. In most companies, there is a wide range of benefits, that when packaged together, can really make a difference in a worker’s life. Often that information is available on a company website.

“It’s not a guarantee of a family-friendly workplace, but it’s a start,” says Judith Casey, Director of the Sloan Work and Family Research Network at Boston College Graduate School of Social Work. Almost as important, she says, is learning if the benefits and policies can actually be used for the position you are considering without suffering a penalty. “Some organizations for example, may allow flexibility for their supervisors but not for their line workers,” Casey explains.

For employers and employees, Corporate Voices offers a number of toolkits and other resources on its website to implement flexible work schedules.

Also, at the first-ever White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility in March 2010, Corporate Voices was asked to lead a campaign to engage the business community and create a broader awareness of the positive business and employee benefits of workplace flexibility.

Corporate Voices, its Partner Coalition, and Outreach Partners are now reaching out to the business community to seek its support in signing the Statement of Support for Expanding Workplace Flexibility. By signing the Statment of Support, businesses will express their support for flexibility principles in their organizations and in the wider business community.