3 Ways to Break Out of The “All Work” Or “No Work” Death Trap

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(This post originally appeared in FastCompany.com)

As I observed the debate ignited by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s controversial “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” article in The Atlantic from afar over the past week, I witnessed person after person, including Slaughter, fall into the classic “all work” or “no work” trap.” It’s a death trap that immediately kills any productive conversation about creative, innovative ways to work differently. And that’s the real conversation we need to have.

But we won’t until we figure out how to avoid the “all or nothing” landmine that everyone seems to run into whenever a discussion about how to manage work and life in a modern, hectic world begins. Here are three simple steps to get us started:

First, understand what it looks like when someone falls into the trap. You’ll begin to recognize what to avoid. Here are a few examples related to the Slaughter article debate:

The truth is that Slaughter did not leave her senior position in the State Department to not work. She went back to her very busy, very prestigious full-time job as a professor at Princeton. The difference was at Princeton she has more control over her schedule.

Unfortunately, in many of the responses to and interviews about her article, the conversation quickly devolved into the unwinnable debate “should mothers work or stay home.” That’s not what Slaughter did or what she was talking about. And yet, that’s where we ended up.

Few were able to pull themselves out of the trap. It would have meant acknowledging that some people do choose to work all the time, or not work for pay at all, but what about everyone else? How do we take advantage of the countless possibilities in-between and do it in a way that works for us and our jobs?

Watch how Slaughter herself falls into the trap in this video from her interview at The Aspen Ideas Festival. She tries to explain how we should praise women who make work+life decisions in part to care for their families. But then assumes men can’t be guided by family concerns because they have to make money.

Actually, men could and often do make tough work choices based on family considerations as long as the default assumption isn’t that the only alternative is to “not work,” but to work differently.

Again, Slaughter did not choose to work less. She worked differently. There’s no reason a man couldn’t do the same. But in the “all work” or “no work” trap it’s impossible to stay in the grey zone of work+life possibility for all. What about the men who turn down promotions that would have required more work or take lower-paying jobs closer to home? I see it happen all the time, but because those choices don’t fit our rigid “all or nothing” work dichotomy, we don’t see or celebrate them. We should.

Very few people, men or women, can afford to not work even for a brief period of time; therefore, working smarter, better and more flexibly is the solution. Hopefully knowing what the trap looks like will help us avoid falling into it. And we can finally focus our discussion on the countless flexible ways of fitting work and life together.

Second, the issue is how to reset your unique work+life “fit” not work-life balance: If you have a few minutes, go back and re-read The Atlantic article. Everywhere you see the phrase “work life balance,” substitute “find a work+life fit that works for me and my job.” It’s almost magical what happens. All of sudden the unwinnable search to find “balance,” turns into a series of deliberate choices based on work and personal circumstances at a particular point in time. And much of the drama disappears. (For more,  click here to go to FastCompany.com)

The Top 10 Work, Life and Money Lessons from Mika Brzezinski Every Woman Should Know

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(This post originally appeared in Forbes.com)

I’m a fan of Morning Joe on MSNBC. I love the banter between the hosts and the eclectic mix of guests. I love learning about the “real story” behind politics. I love the music, and I love Mika Brzezinski. She’s a smart, experienced newsperson, but she’s also a mom and wife. And she brings all of that to the table each day.

It was a thrill to see her moderate the opening panel when I attended the White House Conference on Women and the Economy in April. Not only did she wear the most amazing pink dress, but she impressed me with her grasp of the complex issues that impact a woman’s ability to achieve her goals on and off the job.

When Senior Advisor to President Obama, Valerie Jarrett, introduced Brzezinsky as the moderator of the panel, she said her new book, Knowing Your Value (Weinstein Books, 2012) was a “must read for all women.” I decided to check it out. She was right.

Not only does Brzezinski share the often difficult lessons she’s learned over the years about work, life and money but she includes the very candid stories and insights of other successful women like Tina Brown, Sheryl Sandberg, Suze Orman, and Arianna Huffington just to name a few.

Here are ten of the key lessons from the book that every woman should know:

1) Know your “value:” What you contribute and how much that is worth in the market.

My heart broke for Brzezinski when she describes how it felt to finally sign a contract with MSNBC only to realize that both of her co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Willie Geist made significantly more money than she did. Not only that, but they were assigned specifically to Morning Joe, whereas she was required to do the show and other assignments for the network. This very painful realization finally forced her to objectively and dispassionately research how much she was worth in the market and learn how to be compensated fairly.

2) Don’t wait to be noticed. Walk in and ask for what you want…because that’s what all of the guys are doing, constantly. (Click here to go to Forbes.com for more)

3 Signs Flexible Work is Strategic–And Not Just Window Dressing

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(Post originally appeared in Fast Company)

Research shows that a majority of employers offer at least some type of informal, day-to-day and formal work flexibility, and a majority of employees agree that they have access to it.

Therefore, the question is no longer simply, “What is telework, flexible hours, etc.?” We get the concept. The focus must now shift to “How do we use work flexibility strategically and deliberately to achieve our unique business and personal goals?”

Unfortunately, too often the flexible work that exists is either random with no clear, coordinated, widely understood goal behind it. Or it’s a program or policy that sounds and feels good but hasn’t infiltrated its way into the day-to-day business.

So how do you tell if an organization’s approach to work flexibility is deliberate, strategic and targeted, or if it’s random, window dressing? Here are three signs:

Sign #1: When a business challenge or opportunity appears, managers naturally ask themselves, “How can we address this by being more flexible in how, when and where work is done?” And then they understand how to pull the team together to make that flexible work solution succeed. For example:

  • The group is covering clients across all time zones and is burning out; therefore, “How can we be more flexible with our work hours so that if you are on a call with Asia or Europe overnight, you don’t have to be at your desk by 9 a.m. the next day?”
  • Business is down and we are getting pressure to cut head count; therefore, “How can I reduce schedules to save labor costs and the valuable talent we’ll need when the business turns around?”
  • An employee has to care for his mother who lives in another state and was recently diagnosed with dementia; therefore, “What if we let him telework so he doesn’t have to quit?”
  • There may be a new business opportunity in a market but there isn’t enough revenue to justify renting an office; therefore, “We can have the initial start up team telework from their homes until revenue grows?”

Sign #2: The organization consistently connects the dots between all of the tactical, siloed applications of work flexibility. (Click here for more)

3 Work-Life Assumptions That Are Often Wrong (and Costly)

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Over the last two decades, work and life have transformed so radically that the language we use (e.g. “balance) and the beliefs we hold about the decisions we “should” or “can” make are often out of date.

Here are three examples of work-life assumptions that are frequently wrong…and costly:

Wrong Assumption #1: When a woman has a baby, she will want to work part-time (or not at all), and won’t want to take on more responsibility or travel. Unfortunately, some leaders, managers and colleagues of women in the workplace still make this assumption.

This bias is based on beliefs that continue to influence behavior, even though they no longer broadly apply. For example, Gayle Lemmon recently wrote an article in The Atlantic about research that showed some men in traditional marriages still unconsciously overlook women in the workplace for promotion, etc. because of their assumptions about women and the role they play. In reality, only 29% of children have a stay-at-home parent. The rest either live in a single parent home or both parents work for pay.

  • Why it’s costly: It costs women in that it reinforces the well-documented “motherhood penalty” that affects their career advancement and earnings. It’s costly to employers because the business doesn’t have access to or develop the talent of some of its best employees.
  • Assumption Update: Don’t assume. Discuss preferences which each individual woman. After having a child, some women will want or have to work full-time. They’ll be happy to travel and welcome additional responsibilities. And even if they don’t, women who choose to scale back their career may want to only for a certain period of time. Not forever.

Wrong Assumption #2: Men don’t care about work-life issues. This is an extension of the previous inaccurate assumption. The bias is that work-life is a women’s issue, or more specifically, a mothers’ issue.

From my experience working inside companies, most men care quite a bit about how they manage their lives on and off the job and want to be invited into the conversation. In fact, research shows that men in dual-earner couples are experiencing more work+life conflict than women.

  • Why it’s costly: It costs men because they don’t feel that they have permission to get the support and flexibility they need to manage their work and life better and smarter. Employers lose the productivity and engagement from unnecessarily stressed and overwhelmed men.
  • Assumption Update: We all need to manage our work+life fit everyday if we want to see our friends and family, stay healthy, etc. That includes men and women. And all of us will experience major life transitions that will require a more formal reset of our work+life fit, whether it’s becoming a parent, caring for an aging relative, relocating with a spouse, going back to school or semi-retiring.

Wrong Assumption #3: You can’t have a life and start a successful business. Whether it’s Steve Jobs’ complete devotion to Apple at the expense of time with his family, or Tony Hsieh’s expectation that Zappos employees spend 10-20% of their time outside of work with each other, the assumed gold standard of successful entrepreneurship is 100% work to the exclusion of everything else.

  • Why it’s costly: It scares off many women and men with great business ideas but want to tuck their kids in on occassion and maintain a relationship beyond the people at work. The economy as a whole loses because jobs that are badly needed are not created. It costs potential entrepreneurs, especially women, because they don’t have access to as much capital to grow their businesses.
  • Assumption Update: No one will ever have “balance,” but you can grow a successful business and still have some life outside of work. There are plenty of examples of people doing it and doing it well. This includes the mothers leading successful entrepreneurial ventures who were featured in a recent New York Times article written by Hannah Seligson. Is it hard work? Yes. Can it be done? Yes.

The answer is to assume nothing when it comes to how we want and need to manage our lives on and off the job in a busy, flexible, hectic modern world. Not only are our assumptions often wrong, but they can be costly to both the individual and the business. Instead let’s keep talking to each other. Learn the facts and come up with unique answers that meet our personal needs and the needs of our jobs.

What are the incorrect assumptions that you see people making about work and life? What’s the cost and how can we update those beliefs to match today’s reality?

For more, be sure to connect with me on Twitter @caliyost.

7 Tips for New Grads to Achieve Better Work Life Balance

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This past weekend I attended my college reunion. A highlight was the chance to meet current students who helped host the event. When one of these smart and enthusiastic student ambassadors asked me what I did for my career, I explained that I make work more flexible inside of organizations and help individuals to use that flexibility to manage their work and life. But I was unprepared when he replied, “So how do I find work life balance after I graduate?”

Unfortunately, my mind wasn’t in work-mode at that moment and I fumbled my response. It wasn’t until I drove home that I realized what I’d wished I’d told him (doesn’t it always happen that way?).

So here are my top seven tips to help recent or soon-to-be graduates find the work-life “balance” that, research shows, is one of their top priorities:

1. There is no “balance.” Update your language and mindset to reflect what you really want and to get manager support.

When I talk to recent graduates, I don’t hear that they expect a 50-50 split or “balance” between their work and personal life every day.  They realize there will be times when they have to work a lot and other times when they might not. What they want is the ability to work flexibly and differently depending upon what’s going on at work and in their life at a particular time.

As one recent graduate told me, “I am happy to work all weekend if you need me to, but don’t make me sit here all day if I’m not busy and could leave early, run errands, see my friends, and get to the gym.”
It’s time for a language and mindset update.

The language that’s worked for me over the past decade and is being adopted by more employers is work-life “fit,” or the unique fit between your work and personal realities. It will change day-to-day and during major life and career transitions, like going back to school, having a baby, or caring for aging family member.  What you want to have is the flexibility to manage your work-life fit in a way that works for you and your job.

For some, the goal will be the complete, seamless integration of work into your life. However, many will prefer to deliberately separate the two as much as possible. Neither goal is right or wrong. It’s a matter of the work-life fit that you choose.

Another reason to stop using balance to describe your goal is that managers tend to interpret what you are saying as “work less.” They don’t hear “work differently and more flexibly.” In an economic environment where organizations are forced to do more with fewer resources, anything that infers working “less” won’t be positively embraced.

So how do you get support to work differently and more flexibly?

2. Realize you are a “digital native,” but many people you will work with and for are not…at least not yet. You can help them get there. It might seem like a no-brainer to you to get to work a couple of hours later in the morning because you were on the phone with Asia for three hours from home the night before. But that might not be so clear to a manager who expects you to be at your desk by 9 a.m. every day, rain or shine, call or no call. If that mismatch of expectations happens, don’t take it personally. Open a dialogue about how working more flexibly and differently can benefit the business. You do that by remembering to:

3. Focus on how the work will get done and the business will benefit by working flexibly and differently.  Don’t emphasize “why” you want to do it and how you will benefit. As I advised in a recent blog post, managers support flexible work when it’s clear how the work will get done. This is especially true for recent graduate who may require more supervision. Will your manager/supervisor need to be available to answer your questions if you work on a project at night from home? Is that going to be convenient for them?

A recent Student Employment Gap survey of employers conducted by Millennial Branding found that employers looked for teamwork as one of the top skills in their new hires. Show that you are focused on the needs of the business and your team when you propose working more flexibly and differently.

4. Use the power of the “pilot.” If you want to work more flexibly, but your manager resists, offer to test it out for three months. This gives your manager comfort that they aren’t committing to something they think might not work out (even though most likely it will). It’s called using the power of the pilot.

5. Try not to completely disconnect from the workforce for a long period of time. Chances are you will experience a major life transition at some point in your career like having a baby, relocating for a partner’s new job, or caring for an aging adult. Life is long, unpredictable, and expensive. It can be risky to step away from the workforce.

Before you quit completely, try to propose a flexible work plan that will allow you to remain employed while taking care of your new personal realities (click here for a step-by-step, how-to for creating a plan). If you do decide to leave the workforce, be strategic about it. Check out iRelaunch.com for great advice about how to plan a career break. (Click HERE for more at FastCompany.com)

I would love to connect with you on Twitter @caliyost.


3 Reasons Why Card-Carrying Capitalists Should Support Paid Family Leave

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In business school, we were taught that a solid strategy recognizes the exogenous (external) and endogenous (internal) challenges facing your business and addresses them. Employee child care and eldercare responsibilities are not only two major external business challenges, but they become internal issues the minute an employee walks in the door or signs onto his or her computer.

In the U.S., we pride ourselves on our capitalistic, profit-oriented savvy; therefore, given the growing magnitude of employee caregiving realities, you would assume that employers would support a clear, consistent uniform strategic response.  One that minimized business disruption and kept employees engaged and productive over the long-term. Unfortunately, the reality is the exact opposite.

Status of Paid Family Leave in the U.S.

Out of 178 countries worldwide, the United States is one of three that does not guarantee new mothers paid leave. The other two countries are Papua New Guinea and Swaziland. Nationwide, in March 2011, only 11% of the private sector workers and 17% of public sector workers reported having access to paid leave through their employer.

Only two states in the country, California and New Jersey, offer six weeks of paid family leave to men and women who are caregivers.  Even in the face of state budget challenges, both programs are healthy and successful. Unfortunately, the state leaves are not job-guaranteed which makes the time difficult to take. (New Jersey Paid Family Leave Fact Sheet / California Paid Family Leave Fact Sheet)

Yes, there are 12 weeks of job-guaranteed FMLA, but it is unpaid and employers with fewer than 50 employees are exempt which eliminates a large percentage of workers.

In terms of private paid leave offered directly to employees by employers, 58% of mothers who gave birth and were offered leave by their employer received some form of maternity disability pay, but only 14% of men on paternity leave received any replacement income (2012 National Study of Employers). That means 42% of mothers and 86% of fathers with employer supported leave received no income at all.

A Brief History

Historically, a coalition of labor, women’s, child and health advocates have promoted paid family leave. They’ve emphasized the well-documented public health benefits, the peace of mind of employees, benefits for children and eldercare cost savings. While valuable and important, these rationales haven’t withstood the “job killer and “anti-business” arguments used by groups like the Chamber of Commerce to fight approval. (Note: at the end of the post, you will find new information that could indicate the Chamber’s position on caregiving as an important business challenge is evolving, at least in their organization.)

Why?

There are workplace and public policies that plan for time off and income replacement in case of illness or injury. There are 401Ks and social security for when you retire and can no longer work. Why isn’t there a coordinated, uniform workplace and public policy that offers time off and at least partial income replacement when people, inevitably, have babies or an aging parent needs care? Why?

I wanted the question “why” answered when I attended last month’s Paid Family Leave Forum at the Ford Foundation sponsored by the National Center for Children in Poverty, New York State Paid Leave Coalition and A Better Balance. What I learned reinforced my long-held belief that every card-carrying capitalist should support paid family leave public policy because:

  • Paid family leave acknowledges and addresses a reality that directly impacts every business and, therefore, should be planned for strategically, uniformly and deliberately;
  • Paid family leave is NOT a tax, but income replacement insurance program funded by employees at minimal cost and
  • We are paying for a cost for caregiving already, albeit indirectly and inefficiently.

But, First, Don’t Shoot the Messenger

Before we dig deeper into each of the reasons listed above, I have to establish my business credibility, or “cred.” Too often when someone tries to engage the business community on issues that they consider “soft” or societal in nature, the messenger is dismissed as “not understanding business.” This, in turn, dismisses the message. I’m a messenger who can’t be easily dismissed with that argument because I do “get” business.

I was a banker for seven years, specializing in lending to closely held companies and I graduated, with honors, from Columbia Business School. I can rock a balance sheet and cash flow statement with the best of them, and I’ve even been known to find a strange joy in deciphering the “story” within the notes at the back of an annual report. I am a flexible work strategy consultant who works inside of organizations regularly, and I believe that both people and the business must benefit if flexible work is going to succeed.

As advocates for paid family leave found in California, I am not alone. Many business people support a uniform, public policy to address this challenge, but their voices were drowned out by the groups lobbying against it.

3 Reasons Every Card-Carrying Capitalist Should Support Paid Family Leave

My knowledge of and respect for business is why I think every card-carrying, profit-oriented capitalist should support paid family leave policy (or at least not stand in its way):

Reason #1: Paid Family Leave acknowledges and addresses a reality that directly impacts every business and, therefore, should be planned for strategically and deliberately.

The truth is that we are all potential caregivers. We may not end up having children, but all of us have parents and aging relatives who will very likely at some point require care.

Most mothers and fathers have to work and will be in the workforce when they have children. According to studies by the Center for American Progress, “in 2010, among families with children, 49% were headed by two working parents and 26% by single parents.” In 2009, employed wives of dual-earner families contributed 47% of total family earnings. In most cases, the income of both parents is critical to a family’s financial well-being.

With regard to eldercare, in 2010, 45% of employees surveyed said they had eldercare responsibilities over the past five years, and 49% expect to have responsibilities in the next five years. As the population ages, the eldercare challenges are expected to grow and many of those caregivers—men and women–will be in the workforce.

Paid family leave as public policy acknowledges the reality of caregiving by creating a uniform, clear response. Disruption is minimized because everyone knows the rules of the road. Business can plan in advance how the work will get done should an employee take leave for the prescribed six week period of time. This is especially true for maternity leave where, usually, you have months to plan. For example, perhaps the business can use the wages not paid to the employee on leave to hire a temporary worker, or to pay exist staff to take on the extra work during the leave.

It’s worth noting that a follow-up study of employers in California found that a majority felt paid family leave had either a positive or neutral impact on their business.

Reason #2: In the case of California and New Jersey, Paid Family Leave is NOT a tax, but an income replacement insurance program funded by employees.  In fact, some advocates feel a more accurate name is Family Leave Insurance. (Click HERE to go to Forbes.com for more)

How to Advocate for Family Leave Insurance, a.k.a “Paid Family Leave,” in Your State

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This week I wrote a post for Forbes.com entitled “3 Reasons Why Card-Carrying Capitalists Should Support Family Leave.”  To help individuals advocate for Paid Family Leave (which is really Family Leave “Insurance”) in their state, Ellen Bravo the Executive Director of Family Values @ Work, a national network of 16 state and local coalitions helping spur the growing movement for family-friendly workplace policies, offered the following get-started tips:
  1. Stay informed about legislation in your state or nationally by signing up with a group or coalition working on this issue. You can find more information on these websites: Family Values at Work and the National Partnership for Women and Families.
  2. Spread the word. Urge any group you’re involved with to become a part of the coalition. Speak up on your Facebook page or on Twitter, in a letter to the editor or in a post for a community or congregation newsletter.
  3. Share your personal experience, positive or negative, with legislators (contact information for state legislators can be found online). Let them know the impact on babies, on those dealing with chronic illness or aging, on families and on caregivers like you when employees do or don’t have access to affordable family leave.
  4. Create a personal network of at least 5 people, urge each of them to share their own experience with legislators – and if possible, urge your 5 people to create their own network of 5.

For more, connect with me on Twitter @caliyost.

How to Get Middle Managers To Support Flexible Work

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(This post originally appeared in FastCompany.com)

Last week I attended a fascinating forum on paid family leave at the Ford Foundation. As is often the case in any discussion about the demands of work and family, the need for work flexibility was front and center, with the primary challenge being, “How do we get middle managers to support it?”

Middle-manager support can be the difference between success and failure of a work flexibility strategy and, yet, it remains elusive. The advice on how to solve the problem ranges from “Put the policy in place. Tell managers this is the way it is. Reward those who do it and punish those that don’t,” to “You can’t lead a horse to water. I guess you need to wait for the dinosaurs to die off [sigh].”

In my experience, a top-down policy and an ultimatum will fail. It only creates more resistance. And waiting for a generation of managers to leave is not only inefficient, but it unnecessarily leaves money on the table as the organization and its people miss out on the benefits of flexible work.

Over the years, we’ve succeeded in getting even some of the most skeptical middle managers on board the work flexibility train. But it requires a larger upfront commitment of resources (e.g. time, money, and people) than it takes to write a policy or rely on attrition. However, the return on that investment is a group of middle managers who not only accept work flexibility but understand how to use it as a powerful tool to run their business.

Here are five the ways we’ve gotten middle managers to support flexible work:

Ask middle managers to help articulate the “why” or business case for work flexibility in your organization, and then let them participate in determining what that flexibility will look like. Interview middle managers–the supporters of flexibility as well as the naysayers. Ask them why they think it is or is not important to be more flexible in the way work is done. Encourage them to tell you how it will solve their business challenges. Gather groups of managers and employees together to expand this shared vision they’ve created. At the end of the process, people feel invested in this approach to flexible work that they developed themselves, bottom up and top down.

Allow middle managers to freely express the “prices” they fear they will pay, while also helping them to focus on the payoffs of work flexibility. I love naysayers. When I am consulting to a group of managers about work flexibility and one of them has the courage to say, “Yeah, but I’m going to be left doing more work,” I want to hug them. They are articulating one of the very real fears many of the middle managers have about changing the way work is done. When you give middle managers a chance to share those concerns freely, they are able to move beyond them. They start to see the long list of benefits from having a more flexible approach to work. But if they can’t, they get stuck behind the fears.

Make sure that work flexibility in the organization is built on a partnership model where employees have as much responsibility for the success of it as the managers do… (For more, please click here)

I invite you to join me on Twitter @caliyost.

How to Move Past the Fear “If I Give Flexibility to You, Everyone Will Want It”

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(This post originally appeared in Forbes.com)

Even though 82% of the respondents to our 2011 Work+Life Fit Reality Check national study of full-time employees said that they had some form of work flexibility, I still hear stories of people experiencing resistance from their managers because of the “floodgates fear.”  What’s the floodgates fear? The scenario looks something like this:

Employee to manager: Susan, here’s my plan to work from home every Wednesday. I’ve outlined how I’m going to get my work done, how I’m going to communicate and handle any unexpected needs that might come up.”

Manager to employee: “Chris, this flexible work plan looks terrific, but if I give to you then everyone is going to want it.”

Susan, the manager, has been paralyzed by the fear that the floodgates for work flexibility will open and chaos will ensue. In fact, one manager confessed that he became so frightened that he imagined that he was in a big white room with hundreds of desk. On each desk was a phone. All of the phones were ringing and he was the only person in the room to answer them.

The managers who usually struggle most either haven’t ever had an employee work flexibly, or they’ve tried it in the past and it didn’t work.

So how do you help your manager move beyond the fear that the flexible work floodgates will open?  Here are a few tips:

Don’t take their reaction personally. Realize this fear is so common amongst managers that it has its own name, the Floodgates Fear. It’s based upon the very real concern that if they allow you to work differently, then suddenly they will be inundated with requests. The manager doesn’t want to be the bad guy or gal and have to say “no,” but they also have a business to run. If you don’t take their reaction personally, then you can work together to come up with a compromise that’s comfortable for everyone. You do this when you…

Agree to keep the lines of communication open with your manager. Another big fear that managers have about flexible work is that once they say “yes,” to a specific plan they can never ask to change it. The reality is that circumstances do change. It will give your manager a sense of comfort to know that if they need to come to you and say, “You know what, I can’t have two people working from home on Tuesdays. It’s affecting customer service on those days,” that your reaction will be, “Okay, let’s talk about how to fix it.”  This will…(For more, please click here)

The Workplace Challenges Political Candidates Have to Address

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It’s not your grandpa’s workplace anymore, but if you listen to the presidential and congressional candidates, it’s easy to wonder if they’re aware that it’s 2012, not 1972. This is especially true for issues related to work and life in a modern, hectic, global, high-tech world.

Addressing these issues isn’t “nice, but non-urgent.” They directly impact the economic growth agenda that the candidates say is their primary focus. Productivity and innovation can’t happen without considering the reality people face on and off the job.

Now, I’m not saying government can solve all of the challenges. In fact, employers and individuals also need to act and think differently if we are going to construct a new model of prosperity for all. But public policy plays a role and must catch up.

I don’t know exactly what that looks like, but we need to start a serious debate grounded in today’s world.  Here are the six present-day work and life questions I wish every candidate for president and Congress would acknowledge. Doing so would let voters know that at least they understand the issues exist.

Questions #1 and #2: Who is going to care for the aging population? How are caregivers supposed to provide that care while working, and how are they supposed to pay for it?

If there’s one issue looming on the horizon that’s going to slam full force into businesses of all sizes and their employees (men and women), it’s eldercare. In terms of who will provide care, it’s not going to be a current or former stay-at-home parent or spouse:

  • First, most parents work for pay. A new study by the Center for American Progress found that, “in 2010, among families with children, 49% were headed by two working parents and 26% by a single parent.” In other words, only 29% of children have a stay-at-home parent.
  • Second, we can’t assume that stay-at-home parents want to become primary eldercare providers. It is a very different and, in many ways, more difficult type of care.
  • Third, today, “more than 50% of U.S. residents are single, nearly a third of all households have just one resident…By 2000, 62% of the widowed elderly lived alone.” In other words, in many cases, there is no one else in a household to provide direct, local care. And that trend is growing.

Employers aren’t dealing with the reality at all. In fact, according to a new study by the National Alliance for Caregiving, only 9% of employers offered referrals for eldercare in 2011, down from 22% in 2007.

And, individuals are equally as unprepared. According to Denise Brown, founder of Caregiving.com, most people believe Medicare will pay for and provide care, which is not true. As a result, families don’t plan or budget and are overwhelmed financially, physically, and emotionally. This makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for a growing number of men and women to fully contribute at work.

Question #3: How are you going to support and promote greater work flexibility?

Work flexibility offers many benefits to businesses and people. After almost two decades in the trenches working with organizations and individuals, I don’t believe the government can mandate flexibility. Each business and each person is too different for a one-size-fits-all approach to flexibility to succeed. However, there are issues the government can address that stand in the way of progress:  (Click here for more on FastCompany.com)

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @caliyost.