This fall, I noted how remarkable it was that work life “balance” and flexibility were part of both candidates’ economic platforms. Families and Work Institute, the prestigious work-life think tank, then hosted unprecedented conference calls with both campaigns to discuss their positions on work+life issues. And with the recently-announced White House Task Force on Working Families, to be chaired by Vice President-elect Joe Biden, the historic progress of the work+life agenda as a core economic issue continues. This could be big.
The goals of the task force are to “work towards raising the living standards of middle class families” by (presented in the order outlined in the official Obama administration press release):
- Expanding education and lifelong training opportunities
- Improving work and family balance
- Restoring labor standards, including workplace safety
- Helping to protect middle-class and working-family incomes
- Protecting retirement security
“Improving work and family balance” is second bullet point (emphasis mine), after expanding education and training. Second. That’s not to say it’s more important than labor standards, income protection, and retirement security. But placing “work and family balance” so near the top of the list is a noteworthy statement about the importance of managing work and life to the future economic success of the country.
This placement acknowledges what we found in the 2007 Work+Life Fit Reality Check survey which was the 60 % of respondents believe the next President should introduce legislation that would make it easier for organizations to offer and individuals to have work life flexibility.
Second, it recognizes the fact that work and life are no longer two separate spheres, with neat, commonly understood rules and boundaries. To use the term coined by Families and Work Institute, there is “spillover.” Today there are no boundaries, and the old rules governing how we manage our work and our personal responsibilities no longer apply.
There is no universal 9-to-5, in-the-office, Monday through Friday. In all economic categories, most moms don’t stay home full-time, and dads are taking on more child care responsibilities. (For new insights into the employment realities of rural women, check out the recent research from the Carsey Institute at University of New Hampshire.) More and more people have aging parents. No one has guaranteed lifetime employment with one company until retirement. And increasingly, retirement includes some kind of paid work, either out of necessity or desire. The personal, organizational, governmental, political and cultural ramifications of this spillover are formidable, and they need to be recognized and addressed.
By facing this new work+life reality head on, the Task Force has an opportunity. It can advocate updated strategies that will help individuals and organizations take advantage of the benefits that lie within these changes. Important advantages do exist, if managed correctly:
- Individuals will have more choices about how to flexibly manage their unique work+life fit realities as they change day-to-day and throughout their careers.
- Organizations can be more adaptable and flexible in a global economy in which rapid change will continue to be the only constant.
While there are great opportunities, success will require a partnership between government, business, and individuals. The government alone can not provide the answers, but it can create a sense of urgency and reward innovation. Making “work life” one of the top economic priorities of the Task Force is a great start.
If I could make an initial recommendation to the Task Force, it would be to change the goal from “improving work and family balance” to “improving work+life fit and flexibility.”
We all need to actively and strategically manage our work and life, not just those with family responsibilities. There is no such thing as achieving balance, only helping individuals flexibly manage their unique work+life fit. And, organizations can use the same flexibility individuals need to manage their work and life–flextime, telecommuting, reduced schedules, compressed workweeks, and project-based work—as business strategies to help them compete and thrive.
Simply changing the language of the goal would open up many possibilities:
For individuals, it could mean providing new guidelines and an updated skill set for managing work and life. This would include an understanding of how propose a flex plan to telecommute, flex your hours, reduce your schedule, work fewer longer days, share your job, or become a project-based consultant. And do it in a way that considers your needs as well as the needs of the business. These skills could be incorporated into the new education and lifelong learning effort.
From a public policy perspective, it could involve updating laws, programs and policies related to all aspects of work and life—continuing education, child care, eldercare, retirement, volunteerism, health and wellness—to reflect this new flexible work+life reality where one-size-does-not-fit all.
For organizations and business leaders, it could move business strategies—client service, resource management, talent management, work design and planning–once and for all out of the 1950’s. Adapting workplace practices to a reality where work and life are no longer separate entities.
The progress within organizations toward a more flexible work environment has been steady but too slow, as only 25% of respondents to the 2007 Work+Life Fit Reality Check said they had the work life flexibility they needed. Greater flexibility in where, when and how work is done allows individuals to more effectively manage their work+life fit, but also helps businesses better service clients, manage resources, prepare for disasters, support environmental sustainability, and reduce costs, just to name a few of the broad bottom line impacts.
The Task Force could start by supporting the Working Families Flexibility Act whereby employees can request flexibility but must prove that it works for them personally and the business. And the government could provide organizations with resources, tax incentives and best practices to encourage the implementation of strategic flexibility in a way that works for their business and employees. As with individual work+life fit, one type of strategic flexibility does not fit every business or industry.
The prominent placement of “work and family” within the economic goals of the White House Task Force on Working Families is important and noteworthy. It may finally move us beyond the outdated “all or nothing” mindset and inflexible approaches to work and life that keep individuals overwhelmed and organizations underperforming. It’s a change that’s long overdue.
What do you think? Will making “work life” a prominent objective of the White House Task Force have an impact? How?