Thursday

A Working Mom's Business Case for Flexible Work

Working mom in the office, may become obsolete


“Must have the ability to work flexible schedules with varying days off including holidays, nights, weekends, and emergencies...” quoted from a job currently posted on Monster.com

The other week I attended a continuing legal education (CLE) seminar where the topic was, “Workplace Flexibility”.  As the above quote indicates, employers have wanted employees to be "flexible" for quite some time. However, that is not what most employees contemplate when thinking about, "workplace flexibility." The truth is that work responsibilities have expanded such that working full time and managing one's life has become very challenging. People extol the benefits of smart phones and related technology. However, unless those devices allow the worker to determine when and how they work, all those devices do is create a 24/7 tether to the office.


Indeed, one participant at the CLE discussed how after working a full day in the office, he receives emails from partners at midnight and feels pressured to respond upon receipt. That is the antithesis of flexibility. It is also not employee centered. What the organization has done is violate previously established boundaries by providing employees with smart phones. The employees gained very little.
Note to Corporate America: Employees are not seeking unpredictable schedules like the one described in the above quote and they are not seeking to be at your beck and call 24/7 unless that is essential to some mission critical issue. Instead, they are seeking respectful environments that give them more control over their lives so they can integrate work and home in a seamless way.  
The flexibility topic garnered more impassioned conversation than a conversation about billing hours, which is somewhat hard to believe given the number of lawyers in the room. I think it’s because Corporate America in general and the legal profession in particular is struggling with the concepts of retaining workers and employee satisfaction. Also, although some traction is being made on the paid maternity leave front from a governmental perspective, the concept of flexible work remains frowned upon in some circles. In many environments employees are afraid to request a flexible schedule because they fear being labeled as being, "uncommitted", "undisciplined", and "unfocused".  

Some organizations just don't get it. Flexible work is about respect, employee retention and satisfaction. When employees get these things they tend to stay with their employers and are grateful.

Because flexible work is employer specific there is a great deal of variability about whether it is offered, who gets it, and what it looks like. Based on the conversation at the CLE, there is a decent amount of confusion about what flexible work means. Many believe that the concept only applies to workers who work a reduced work schedule for reduced pay. Others believe it applies to workers who are able to structure a work schedule that fits their lives or the ability to “come and go as they please”. Still others believe that applies to the concept of “comp time”, meaning sometimes an employee works really hard and they are rewarded by time off at some future date. The consensus after the seminar was that flexible work means all of that and potentially more.

As Ann North from The New York Times asked earlier this year, the real question is, "Does Your Work Fit Your Life?" To read her O-Ed, click here

"Flexible work" may be a concept impossible of a precise definition. And that may be the point. The needs of each employee varies upon their stage in life and their responsibilities. For example, a new mother returning to work may need the flexibility that comes with needing to pump every two hours to produce enough breast milk for her infant. (Thanks President Obama for creating a law that makes that a reality. For more information about that law, click here.) A dad with older children may need the flexibility that comes with being able to participate in school activities and leave early in order to coach his daughter's sports team. And a single employee may need to leave periodically in order to take his/her parent to doctors' appointments.

San Francisco actually passed on ordinance requiring companies to consider any employee requests for flexible work. It forces companies to actually evaluate their business needs and whether accommodating the employee would compromise that. To read about the San Francisco Family Friendly Workplace Ordinance, click here 

The specifics of what each of those individuals needs is different, but the general answer is the same. They need a work environment that is employee centered and supports flexibility. As the CLE conversation indicated, we have a long way to go in defining what flexibility looks like and feels like. In some ways, it needs to be a national conversation that has a local solution that fits an individual organization.  Hopefully, our CLE group, and this blog, can help contribute to that conversation!

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