Archive for February, 2010

Work-Sharing Policy as Flex Alternative to Layoffs Gains Steam, BUT Implement Strategically

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As long time readers know, I’ve been a loud proponent of using flexibility in the form of reduced schedules, furloughs, telecommuting, job sharing and flex scheduling to minimize layoffs since the beginning of the recession.  And since the recession started two years ago, some innovative employers have indeed incorporated this more flexible approach to managing costs and resources into their downsizing strategy.

But more employers haven’t followed their lead because there wasn’t the incentive to move beyond the knee-jerk “cut” response that is rewarded, at least in the short-term, by the market (here and here).

As the internationally recognized management expert, Jeffrey Pfeffer, pointed out in a recent Newsweek cover story, “The Case Against Layoffs,” unless your industry is disappearing, layoffs do much more harm than good.   Thankfully it looks like an incentive to seek an alternative to layoffs has arrived, and not a moment too soon as early indications are that mass layoffs may be inching up again after a brief hiatus.

According to an article in today’s USA Today entitled, “Work-share program that cuts hours vs. jobs could grow,” work-sharing legislation may expand to more than half the states by year-end and provide employers the incentive they need to think differently and more flexibly:

“Seventeen states already have programs in which employers can cut the hours of all or most employees in lieu of layoffs. The workers get jobless benefits to recover part of their lost wages.

Work-sharing lets employers avoid the costs of severance and of training new hires when the economy rebounds. For workers, it eliminates the trauma of layoffs and helps preserve morale.

The number of employers in the programs soared last year as the recession deepened and the jobless rate climbed to 10%. A record 166,000 jobs were saved in the 17 states that offer the option vs. 58,000 in 2008, according to the National Association of State Workforce Agencies…

The Gear Works of Seattle, which makes gears for wind turbines, sliced workers’ hours 20%, skirting layoffs for about 15 of 93 employees, says executive Mike Robison. Machinist Robert Foster, 38, who worked four-day weeks for 10 months, says, ‘I like it vs. the alternative.’”

And our research has confirmed that employees do prefer flexible downsizing to the alternative.  Most respondents to our nationally-representative 2009 Work+Life Fit Reality Check study said they would accept a change or reduction in schedule, or take a cut in pay to save their jobs.

Work-share legislation can provide the much-needed incentive, but for flexible downsizing to succeed it can’t be a one-off  “program.” To be a strategic lever for managing through the recession, it must be implemented, reviewed and revised as operating realities change.  Here are some important insights and resources to help the strategic implementation process taken from previous blog posts I’ve written on the subject:

As Recovery Simmers, Limit Lagging Layoffs with Flexible Downsizing (Not Just Furloughs)

One Year Later–Flexible Downsizing and Hard Choices Post-Recession, Pre-Recovery

Get Started Tips to Navigate Post-Recession, Pre-Recovery Flexible Downsizing.  Highlights of the advice include:

  1. Go back and assess where you are.  Know where you stand in the business.
  2. Once you have the facts on paper, reset the organization’s flexible response to match today’s realities.
  3. Reframe and communicate the business case behind either the continuation or discontinuation of any type of flexible downsizing in the post-recession, pre-recovery era.

Finally, to help leaders work through a cost-benefit analysis of layoffs versus a more flexible approach to downsizing, I joined with a team of work+life experts to develop a tool  entitled  “Flexible Rightsizing as a Cost-Effective Alternative to Layoffs.”

Today’s news that work-share legislation is gaining steam across the country is very welcome.  However, for organizations, leaders and employees to truly benefit from the more flexible approach to managing costs and resources it must be implemented, review and revised thoughtfully and strategically.

What do you think?  How important is this legislative incentive to encourage a more flexible alternative to job cuts?

My Post in “Top 10 for 2009” at Sloan Work and Family Network Blog!

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Judi Casey, Director of the Sloan Work and Family Network, just published the list of top 10 posts from their blog for 2009 and I am so honored that my “Work+Life Flexibility and the Recession: Core Business Strategy, Not Unaffordable ‘Perk'” was #5!

In case you missed it, here’s a link to the post, as well as a link to the entire list of Top 10 posts for 2009 from the always terrific Sloan Work and Family Network blog.  Thanks, Judi!

(@fastcompany) Taking Bets: Will Real Reason for Health Care Reform–Uncoupling Work and Coverage–Come Up at Tomorrow’s Summit? (Poll)

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Leading up to tomorrow’s Health Care Summit, I’ve been trying to follow each political party’s public positioning as to why their approach is preferable.

You hear a lot about the current health care reality:

  • 40+ million people uninsured, and growing.
  • Unaffordable premiums.
  • Inability to get coverage for pre-existing conditions.

You’re also presented with two very different solutions, one is more government regulated and the other driven more by the private market.  But, what you don’t hear is “why?”  Why do we need to undertake this massive, structural reordering of a system that’s worked and continues to work for many for decades?

The reason is simple and powerful:  We must uncouple work and health care coverage, because the nature of “work” has radically changed over the last decade. And, since the recession began two years ago, the shift in what it means to “work” has accelerated even more rapidly.  And it’s never going back to the way it was.

That fact needs to be much more front and center in the debate than it has been.  Basically, it’s missing.   For example, in this morning’s New York Times there’s a two page spread of articles discussing tomorrow’s Health Care Summit.  Guess how many times the changing nature of work is explicitly mentioned as one of the key drivers behind the need for reform?  Zero.

It’s not the 1950’s. You don’t get a job with General Motors at 18 years old, keep it for 40 years, and retire with a pension and company provided health care benefits.  But, listening to the politicians from both parties I seriously wonder if they get it.  Do they understand that in today’s economic reality an individual will have any combination of full-time, part-time, contract-based, entrepreneurial employment over the course of a career?  In only one of those four scenarios is there a chance for employer-sponsored health care.  One.  And increasingly having a full-time job doesn’t guarantee  coverage.

Imagine how different the conversation might be…if President Obama kicked off tomorrow’s summit by saying, “We remember a day when we could rely on our job to provide most of us with good, fair coverage for a lifetime.  That day has passed.  We live in a new global economic reality in which most of us will find ourselves, either voluntarily or involuntarily, in a position where affordable employer-sponsored care is not an option.   We must adapt our system to this new existence.”  With that fact as the back drop, it’s much harder to defend the status quo of an antiquated system.

Over the past couple of months, my readers have commented thoughtfully on the need to reform health care primarily due to the changing nature of work: (Click here for more–read comments, and take poll!)

Have Aging Parents AND Siblings? READ THIS BOOK! I Wish I Had.

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I love serendipity (or “serendestiny,” as Sam Horn calls it).  I keep an eye out for it in all aspects of my work and life.  Late last year, I attended a party for the launch of Donna Fenn’s excellent book, Upstarts, in New York City.   At that event, serendipity hit in the form of Francine Russo and her new book, They’re Your Parents Too! How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents’ Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy (Bantam, 2010), which is a must read for everyone with parents and siblings.

Shortly after arriving at the party, Donna pulled me aside and introduced me to Russo saying, “You two have to connect.  Francine has just written a terrific book on elder care.”  Five minutes into my conversation with Russo, I was hooked.   I only wish They’re Your Parents Too! had been written two years ago when my sisters and I cared for our mother until her death from cancer (here and here for posts recounting that experience).

In addition to being incredibly well-written (Russo is a career journalist who most recently covered the aging and boomer beat for Time magazine), it addresses many important issues that my sisters and I intuitively navigated blindly.  Our elder care experience, while rewarding and very challenging, was aided by the fact that three of us get along well, had flexible work+life fit realities, and lived relatively close to our mother.   In many instances, this is not the case which makes Russo’s book even more valuable.

Recently, I spoke with Francine Russo about They’re Your Parents Too! Here are some highlights from our conversation.

CY: Having coordinated a very intense two-year period of elder care with my two sisters, this book really hit a chord.  I haven’t seen anything written on the subject of siblings sharing care of their aging family members.  Why do you think that is, and what do you hope your book does?

FR: In the past, grandparents usually died quickly and didn’t live to be that old.  They didn’t need help for 10 years.  This is the first time in history that original family members have to engage intimately, perhaps for the first time in 40 years, over important issues that may go on for a decade.

People always had to go through the psychological passage of losing parents and facing their own mortality.  But we never had to do it while gathering with original family members and negotiating how to coordinate care for so long.

The family has changed.  You’re not the little sister.  You’re not the big sister.  Everyone is an adult, and it’s a challenge to adapt in this new period as adults especially in a crisis when we tend to revert back to old roles.  We learned these roles as little kids.  You may have to deal with favoritism, or that so-and-so is the “incompetent” one.  All this needs to be reexamined as you are today.

Caring for your parents is a wake up call to become conscious.  Be aware of your feelings as you navigate uncharted waters.   You need to know that huge emotions can sweep you up, and you want to be prepared so you can react in ways that are productive.

CY: In the book you talk about the process of picking a primary caregiver.   You point out that who that main person might be isn’t always obvious.  Can you say more about the process?  And how much of this conversation can take place between siblings before an elder care crisis hits?

FR: Caring for a parent is not a job for one person.  It is a major family passage.  And the conversation should take place if at all possible before a crisis happens.   In a perfect scenario, the parent should be involved directly in that discussion.  That’s not always possible because you might get, “Oh, I don’t want to talk about that.  I’m going to die at 89 years old in my sleep.”  Well, that rarely if ever happens.

My hope for the book is that the sibling who buys it and reads it first passes it along and initiates the dialogue.   For example, it is often assumed that location determines who will provide care, but that is not the case.  In addition to the responsibilities and location of individual siblings, you should consider who has the closest relationship with the parent or parents.  In some instances, that will mean the parents will decide to relocate closer to the child with whom they have the strongest emotional bond.  This is especially true if a parent is moving to assisted living or continuous care.

Yes, caring for a parent is a family job; however, it is helpful if one person, with everyone’s agreement, takes responsibility.  But that doesn’t mean assigning jobs.  Many of the complaints I’ve heard have to do with a caregiver feeling overburdened, or being highly controlling.

It is best if everyone is asked what they want to contribute, and what they are comfortable doing.  This then becomes a regular assignment that’s part of schedules and lists outlining tasks and responsibilities.

The important thing is to maintain a sense that we are all in this together.  It’s easy for caregivers to feel let down by their siblings.  They expected help but didn’t say anything, and they feel rejected.   The stress can tap into so many unhelpful, often counterproductive things we learn in families like, “I shouldn’t have to ask my brother.”  It’s so wrong, but does a great deal of damage to a relationship.  By the time the siblings finally begin to interact, there’s lots of anger.

CY: Disagreements between siblings about end of life treatment can be incredibly difficult.  My sisters and I are very close, but toward the end of my mother’s life it was interesting to watch how we each dealt with what was a heart wrenching situation so differently.  Why is it important for siblings to recognize the unique challenges of this particular time, and what can they do to avoid as much of the confusion as possible?

FR: You’re right.  This is possibly the most difficult moment in life, and it will bring up equally difficult emotions.  Some siblings will not want to let go and will want to keep Mom or Dad around no matter what.

Siblings need to have compassion for each other.  All I can say is don’t wait to have this conversation!  This book is a manual to help you prepare emotionally for the end-of-life reality now.  A great way to do this is to initiate the conversation over the holidays when everyone is gathered.  You could start by saying, “I heard this horrible story about a friend’s parent going into a coma having not discussed what they wanted their children to do.  It was a mess. I hope that never happens to our family.   (Mom/Dad), while we are in the same room, can you tell us what you would want us to do?”

When handled this way, siblings get beyond emotional distortions, needs, and competitions.  There’s a much better chance you’ll all be on the same page when it happens.  However, some siblings may still have trouble letting go.  If you think it is going to be really difficult, make a trusted relative who is not a sibling the health care proxy.

CY: One of my favorite parts of the book talks about “Reinventing Your Family,” and establishing new rituals.  This is so important and yet it’s not top of mind as you are knee deep in the care giving.  Why is it important and what should sibling caregivers do to start that reinvention process?

FR: Many times original family rituals formed around the parents.   Whether during an illness or after they die, new rituals need to take their place.

If siblings have started a dialogue around caregiving that’s reasonable and friendly, they can extend this.  For example, commit to meet once a year at a particular time.   There were sisters who hadn’t spoken in a year because they were very angry.  As part of their negotiation to try to repair their relationship that had broken down over care giving, they agreed to meet once a year.

Another idea is to make phone calls or video conferences part of every holiday.  Make it a ritual.  Another story I heard that I like was of three sisters who didn’t live in the same city but agreed to all fly to Chicago, which is where there mother had lived, every year on her birthday for the weekend.

It’s about connecting but also being flexible because everyone has busy lives.

CY: Thank you, Francine.  As someone who charted the elder care trenches with my sisters and made it out the other side, I wish we had had this book to guide us.  Thank you for seeing an unmet need and providing such a comprehensive, helpful how-to.

Have you spoken with your siblings about how you plan to coordinate care for your parents?  If you have, what was the experience like?  If you haven’t, why not?

For more about They’re Your Parents Too! and Francine Russo, go to, and @YourParentsToo on Twitter.

Work+Life Fit Ah-Ha’s of “Undercover Boss”

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I am not a huge follower of reality TV, though I am a fan of Oprah’s.  I sat down to watch an Oprah episode a couple of weeks ago, and she was talking about the new reality series, Undercover Boss. I almost turned it off, but I’m glad my kids stopped me.  Highlights from the series offered surprisingly important insights.  I was struck by the fortuitous relevance of the show as we make our way through this post-recession, pre-recovery period of uncertainty.

The interactions between the employees and their “undercover boss” showcased the sometimes painful disconnection between the work+life reality employees actually experience and what senior leader know or intend.  I decided to tune in when the series debuted following the Super Bowl, and wasn’t disappointed.

In the first episode, Larry O’Donnell, President & COO of Waste Management, goes undercover and poses as new front-line worker in different divisions of his organization.   Obviously, reality television is contrived by the sheer presence of a camera, but perhaps the followings insights from the show will spark reflection.  Specifically, what’s really happening on the line everyday and what needs to change so that employees and employers benefit.  Here are my takeaways:

American employees work hard…very hard. Often in difficult circumstances.   Productivity grew by 9.5% in the third quarter of 2009, the largest gain in 30 years.  But unit labor costs fell 3.6% in that same period, the largest decrease since 1948.  What this means is that in the second half of 2009, employees produced more work in fewer hours and made less money.

Undercover Boss gives you a sense of what that really looks like.  Whether sorting through a rapidly moving recycling conveyor belt, cleaning 15 port-a-johns in a day, or doing four different office management tasks at the same time, people are working very hard .  And they are often doing it while managing some sort of chronic illness.  In most cases, O’Donnell couldn’t complete the difficult tasks his employees had mastered.  He was visibly surprised and humbled, as he should have been.

Small adjustments in work+life fit reality make a big difference. So often we talk about the big, transformational changes we need to make to improve the way we work and live.  But as the undercover boss learned firsthand, tiny, easy, low-cost adjustments can do enormous good.  There were two small fixes identified by O’Donnell that would make a huge difference to the work+life fit reality of workers.

First, when he rode in the residential sanitation truck with a female driver, O’Donnell was shocked to learn that she goes to the bathroom in a can because there isn’t enough time for a bathroom stop.  At the end of the show, he’d committed to fixing that.

Second, when a worker in the recycling plant panicked and ran to make sure she didn’t clock back in even a minute late from lunch, he was appalled.  He knew this wasn’t the corporate policy, and made sure that rule was reexamined.

Yes, these two small changes, if completed, will have a big impact in terms of morale, commitment, engagement, and lower stress, but chances are they are not isolated.  O’Donnell needs to make identifying and fixing similar work+life fit related issues an ongoing priority.  They may seem insignificant from the executive suite and are easy to pass over and ignore.  Don’t.

Involve line level employees in the creating the solutions. What sounds like a great idea to fix a problem from 30,000 feet up at corporate headquarters may not make any sense on the ground.  I was glad to see that O’Donnell engaged the employees in resolving the issues he observed.  Whether determining when or how to build a bathroom break into the truck route, or how to motivate the people who clean the port-a-johns, he asked the individual employees to participate in the problem solving process.  As a result, there’s a greater likelihood the solutions will work.

Attitude is Makes a Difference. There is no doubt that times are tough today, but attitude goes a long way in determining how we feel about the way work fits into our lives.  While I am sure the employees profiled adapted their behavior for the camera, they exhibited positive attitudes in often difficult work circumstances.  You could tell that they consciously thought about how they approached their jobs.  For example:

  • A man laughs and smiles and describes his job cleaning 15 port-a-johns a day, “an adventure.”
  • A young female cancer survivor takes pride in juggling the responsibilities of one office and three generations of her family alone.
  • The garbage truck driver makes sure to stop and visit with her customers, one of whom is handicapped, along her route, and
  • The proud landfill supervisor marches tirelessly up and down the hills of garbage even though he is on dialysis three nights a week.

The influence of film crews aside, undercover boss O”Donnell was visibly moved by the integrity and dedication of these individuals.  Their attitude offers an object lesson for us all, but you have to wonder how long they can keep it up.  In fact, it turns out the gentleman who cleaned the port-a-johns with a smile had left the company for another job by the time the show aired.

The series continues for the next few weeks.  I will keep watching and sharing any new insights.  Although engineered to make the CEO look like a good guy, it’s fascinating to watch the leader become follower, and the followers become powerful teachers.   Have you been watching Undercover Boss? What’s your reaction?

Why Is U.S. Work+Life Public Policy So Weak: Entrenched Floors and Ceilings

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At the end of January, the highly respected Center for American Progress and UC Hastings Center for Work Life Law published a comprehensive public policy call to action entitled, “The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict: The Poor, the Professionals, and the Missing Middle.” The stated goal of the report is, “to persuade policymakers and the American people that sky-high levels of work-life conflict reflect not just a personal problem but also a failure of public policy to provide for all Americans.”

Before I’d opened the report and read that last sentence, I’d hoped and prayed that it would be different from other public policy treatises for change.  But, as I feared, the report held firm to the broad, comprehensive package of heavily subsidized and regulated work+life supports that researchers and public policy advocates believe represent the minimum, acceptable standard, or floor.  And, beyond more enforcement, it didn’t offer new ideas for how to increase the support of business in the development and implementation of new public initiatives. This historical lack of employer support and engagement forms a very low ceiling that limits the access to and effectiveness of rules and regulations already in place, such as FMLA, much less new ones.

We continue to bang up against the entrenched floor and ceiling.  They are the reason the U.S. is the only industrialized country without some form of paid leave or paid sick days.  We need a new path that is open to lowering the floor and raising the ceiling if we hope to make much needed progress.  The Three Faces report offers a glimpse into what that new path might look like, and it presents a powerful business case for more supports that I hadn’t heard before.   But before I get to that….

How intractable are the high floor and low ceiling?  Based on my experience, very.

Last year, I participated in a small gathering of academic, public policy and corporate representatives to discuss the current state of work+life policy. This was the first time I’d been part of such a direct exchange between these groups.

I was part of a panel discussing innovations in work+life flexibility.  As the last person up to bat at the end of a long meeting, I listened as others shared their research and proposals ever mindful that I wanted to add a new perspective to what was already covered.  I quickly realized that there are two camps: 1) academic researchers and public policy advocates and 2) those working mostly with corporations.   Each group brought very different agendas and perspectives to the table regarding what’s needed, what’s possible, and why we need to do it.

The academic researchers and public policy advocates at the meeting spoke passionately about the need for generous, publicly-subsidized child care, elder care, paid sick days, and paid leaves, as well as government mandated schedule consistency and flexibility in hours.  The rationale for this high floor of support ranged from “social justice,” “the common good,” and “the right thing to do.”

Those with a more corporate perspective spoke of business cases and bottom line considerations.  They urged caution about any new regulations or additional costs.  The rationale for this low ceiling of support focused on the burden to business and potential loss of jobs.

Good news:  all agreed something needed to be done.  Bad news: completely different ideas on what the solution looked like.

As a researcher and corporate consultant, I’m a hybrid of the two parties and an anomaly.  I decided to try to bridge that gap and move toward mutual understanding using my experience making work+life flexibility a meaningful part of an organization’s operating model and culture.

I started my speech by noting that when I first entered the work+life field, I believed top-down, flexible work arrangement policies were the answer.  But, early on, I realized that “policy alone wouldn’t be enough to make meaningful change happen.”  I continued explaining that in my experience, policies related to formal flexible work arrangements dictated the rules, but often didn’t translate into intended action because no one took the time to change the hearts and minds of those in charge of implementation up front.

When initiating broad, fundamental, costly change we need to a better job getting buy-in from all of the stakeholders, developing the business case, and explaining the underlying “why” behind the change.  By creating readiness, strategic flexibility is more widely embraced.  I closed my comments by reiterating that, “Using policy alone to drive change in how, when and where we work and manage our lives to match today’s reality will have limited impact. We need a consensus-building process that brings all of the stakeholders together to create new solutions that meet the needs of the business and the individual.”

Warning:  Land mine!  Land mine!  Too late…

Not only did I not bridge the gap with my speech, but I experienced firsthand what happens when you challenge the validity of either the entrenched floor or the ceiling.  How intense was the reaction?  Let’s just say it was as if I’d ended my comments with, “And then after dinner, I throw kittens into the fire.”  In fact, one researcher asked me if I also advocated the reversal of all child labor laws.  What?  Um, no.  Clearly, I’d stepped on a land mine.  This was not going to be easy, and it was becoming clearer why the U.S. is unable to make meaningful progress related to work+life public policy.

Undaunted, I tried valiantly to reach a common understanding.  I pointed out the strong, viable business cases within the proposals that went beyond simply “common good.”  For example, after talking with one researcher who advocated national regulation for a minimum number of hours per shift (which I knew corporations would fight and defeat), I realized that her findings proved that most scheduling in retail environments is relatively stable.  Therefore, her research could help businesses commit to more standard, predictable shifts even without regulation.  She was unmoved in her belief that better and more policy is the only answer.

New path—lower the floor, raise the ceiling

We weren’t able to lower the floor or raise the ceiling at that meeting.  And since then Federal and state governments are even more aggressively cutting budgets, overhauling the mandates we already have, and debating much-needed spending on job creation.

If we want to pass some form of work+life policy, we need to take a new path.  We need to consider lowering the floor of minimally acceptable supports if required.  And we need to raise the ceiling of business buy-in by proving the fact that helping everyone, including families, manage their work and life organizations will be better able to compete strategically in the global economy.

Some clues as to what a lower floor and higher ceiling might look like can be found in the Three Faces report.  For example:

  • Give people some slack. At minimum, what many of the poor, middle class and professional parents and elder caregivers profiled in the report need is some slack.  The vicissitudes of care giving will inevitably rear their ugly head, whether it’s a late babysitter, or a sick child.  We need to challenge the validity of unnecessarily rigid attendance keeping and shift scheduling.  Why are they in place?  How can the process be managed differently to allow for a reasonable amount of flexibility around the margins of a person’s schedule without risking job loss?
  • It’s not just mothers. The report was full of examples of fathers, elder caregivers and grandparents facing the same work+life challenges as mothers.  Organizations need to understand these issues affect a much broader part of their population than they realize.  The negative impact in terms of stress, turnover, absenteeism, distraction, and errors is not limited to an isolated group of women who have children; therefore, the cost of not offering supports is widespread.
  • How much paid leave COULD we support? Yes, five sick days and six months of paid maternity and paternity leave would be amazing, but if that is too much for the government and corporations to support in the current economic environment, what would work?  And use the following powerful business case from the report to frame a serious discussion amongst all stakeholders:  In the global economy, the lack of work+life supports puts the U.S. at a distinct competitive disadvantage between Europe with a generous package of government supported initiatives and the less developed world where work+life supports are provided by an almost unlimited amount of extremely cheap labor. Pretty compelling call to action.

Finally, reaching consensus: Workplace Flexibility 2010 is a great example of a multi-stakeholder, consensus-building process to replicate.  Years of careful effort raised the ceiling of buy-in to a legislative approach to flexibility as high as possible while maintaining an acceptable floor of support.

Can we move past our entrenched interests and expectations?  Or are we forever stuck behind the traditional high floor and low ceiling blocking meaningful work+life public policy?  How can we craft workable solutions?  What do you think?

Work-Life Initiatives Are the Foundation of Authentic Organizations, by CV Harquail of Authentic Organizations Blog

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In case you missed it, the wise and wonderful CV Harquail has given me permission to share a terrific post she wrote last week for her Authentic Organizations blog about the direct link between work+life fit and the authenticity of an organization.

I concur wholeheartedly–rousing “Amen”–with her argument that you can’t be an authentic organization without work+life fit as part of your foundation.  Enjoy! Work-Life Initiatives Are the Foundation of Authentic Organizations:

” Earlier this week I met with a group of organizational change advocates, each of whom is dedicated to reshaping the relationship between work and life.

Work-Life issues per se aren’t really my gig, although I’ve had a fair amount of work-life conflict in my day as an employee and as a manager. However, I invited myself along to this strategy session because I’m convinced that work-life fit, synergy, resonance, whatever-we-call-it is something we have to address if organizations themselves are to be(come) more authentic.

I have noticed in my own organizational change work and in the perspectives of other consultants how often conversations about work-life strategies are kept at the sidelines. When we talk about how organizations can, will, or should change, we talk about technology, sustainability, flattening hierarchies, innovation, and so on, but we don’t talk about these opportunities in ways that pay attention to work-life issues.

Worse yet, we fail to remember that creating organizations with better work-life resonance is the only thing that will make any of these other initiatives effective.

You’d think that organizational change consultants, corporate strategists, and everyday leaders & managers would be interested in what is clearly the strategic initiative that would support and enable all others initiatives.

Instead, folks seem to be deterred from paying attention to work-life issues because we don’t ask each other to address the myths that make work-life a side issue and not a central issue.

These three myths are that (1) Work-Life is a women’s issue, (2) Work-life initiatives are only for employees who can’t keep up, and (3) Work-life initiatives are ‘nice to have’ but not critical. I wrote earlier, in The (Feminist) Business Bloggers’ Lament , about how sexism prevents us from considering work-life strategies, so let’s focus here on the other two myths…”(Click here for more)

Fast Company: Conundrum–One Person’s Flex Job is Another’s Underemployment

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Last week I co-presented a session at the Working Mother Flexibility Leadership Conference entitled, “Flexibility is the Answer When Rightsizing is the Question.”  We explained how to use strategic flexibility (e.g. flexible scheduling, reduced schedules, furloughs, compressed workweeks, telecommuting) to manage costs and minimize job cuts in response to a business downturn.

In the presentation, I emphasized that it was important to focus on all of the broad benefits of strategic flexibility beyond just minimizing layoffs and managing costs. This includes increased engagement, healthier employees, expanded global client coverage, improved sustainability, and individual work+life fit.  Why?  Because the reality is, depending upon your vantage point, the same flexibility can be seen either as a blessing or a curse.

One person’s reduced schedule that allows him to care for his aging parent is another individual’s bitter recession concession that keeps him from working full-time.  One person’s contract employment provides challenge and freedom, but to someone else it’s an endless series of “gigs” that they would trade in a minute for a full-time job with benefits

Employers and employees face a difficult conundrum.  In today’s global economy, rapid change is reality.  Business operating models need to respond more creatively and flexibly.  The same is true for individual employee work+life fit.  We need more flexibility to manage our work and lives but we also need to be agile in navigating a more flexible career path that could include periods of full-time employment, reduced hours, layoffs, contract work and career breaks.

How do we resolve the need for greater flexibility that both helps and hurts at the same time?

This stark dichotomy was presented in the recent BusinessWeek article, “The Disposable Worker.”  The article’s title sets the tone from the outset—flexibility is “bad.”  And for some of the people interviewed, it is negative.  They do feel disposable.  But for others, that same flexibility is what they want.  They don’t see themselves as disposable, but as a “Flexible Worker.”

There’s the contract-based call center employee who works out of her home.  She is paid by the minute and receives no benefits (bad), but is grateful for the opportunity because she lives in an area with high unemployment (bad or good?).  She also has a great deal of flexibility to care for her three children, one of whom is homeschooled (bad or good?).  Is she a disposable worker, or a flexible worker?  Depends upon the perspective.

We also meet two white collar, contract employees.  One is a marketing executive-for-hire who loves the challenge and flexibility of contract-based assignment work.  The other is an attorney taking on overflow projects from other firms as he struggles to start up his own business after being laid off.  He has no benefits and is not happy about his situation.  Two people, the same flexibility. One loves it.  One doesn’t…(Click here for more)

Missing from David Brooks’ Older People’s Revolution: Greater Work+Life Flexibility

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David Brooks‘ thought-provoking piece in this morning’s New York Times calls older Americans on the carpet for, “Far from serving the young, the old are now taking from them.”  He then urges the older generation to use their time, energy and the internet to reverse this trend by starting a spontaneous national movement that demands changes in health care spending and the retirement age, “to make life better for their grandchildren.”

Okay, makes sense, but here’s the rub.  And I think Seth Godin said it best in a recent blog post:

“Baby boomers are getting old. Dreams are fading, and so is health. Boomers love to whine and we love to imagine that we’ll live forever and accomplish everything. This is the decade that reality kicks in. And, to top it off, savings are thin and resource availability isn’t what it used to be. A lot of people ate their emergency rations during the last decade. Look for this frustration to be acted out in public, and often.” (Emphasis mine)

This means that for David Brooks’ older people’s movement to take off a couple of things need to happen:

  • First, we must address the harsh reality that for many older Americans the demand for greater government support is grounded in real (or perceived) financial need.
  • Second, we have to get more creative.

Yes, expensive mandates like health care spending and Social Security require new approaches.  But what else can we do that would give older Americans non-governmental financial support, and greater time and energy for other parts of their life?   The answer: more later-in-career, work+life flexibility.

As part of the movement, older Americans should ban together, learn how to present a well thought-out plan, and propose creative, flexible work+life fit solutions to their employers.  This might include but is not limited to:

  • Reducing hours and shifting responsibilities. For example, the seasoned newspaper editor who reduced his schedule and took on responsibility for teaching younger reporters how to write compelling stories, faster.
  • Becoming a consultant who supports the business during specific busy periods, or in a particular area of expertise.  For example, experienced accounting firm partners who consult during busy season doing audit reviews.
  • Job sharing with another older worker covering a specific function. For example, two plant managers takeover shared responsibility for the quality review process at their facility.
  • Becoming part of a “coverage pool” that supports the business when people call in sick or go out on leave. For example, a group of experienced tellers are “on call” to cover a group of five offices in a region.  They work on average two to three days a week.

Another option would be for older workers to pursue an Encore Career where they earn money and give back.

Adding greater work+life flexibility to Brooks’ spontaneous, national movement would do more than just reduce the public financial burden on the younger generation.  Companies would retain valuable knowledge and experience.  And older workers, especially those “who ate their emergency rations over the past decade,” would make money and get time for other parts of their lives.  This is important because, quite frankly, I haven’t met too many 70+ year olds who are thrilled about the thought of going to work all day, everyday.

So why isn’t work+life flexibility part of the vision?  How do we get the movement started?  What do you think?