Flexibility at Work: Asking it of our Leaders and Ourselves

Many of us will have seen the neat educational drawing from the 1950’s: “eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for leisure” for a balanced life. It feels so quaint, and speaks to a phantom work-family life that is reality for few Americans.

Over 50 years ago most women did not work outside the home, and the prevailing philosophy of effective work was Taylor’s scientific management, which prescribed minimal worker control over time and task. On the plus side, workweeks were shorter and more regular. On the minus side, people had little control over their time at work.

Management theory in the following decades has led to an emphasis on worker control. As O’Toole and Lawler note in their 2006 study The New American Workplace, employees have much more choice than they did forty years ago: more choice in benefits and family care options, choice in work scheduling, team design, and project design. And yes, many Americans are working differently, making up schedules that fit their lives, often through trial and error.

Trial and error isn’t enough. For dual-earner couples with children, combined work hours are now 91 hours per week, up from 81 hours per week in 1977. For the first time, the 2007 census recorded more American households headed by singles rather than married people. According to the Labor Project for Working Families, 40% of people caring for elders also have childcare responsibilities.

Many business policies, programs, benefits, and practices in place today were designed for the needs of the “traditional family,” those people who make up only 20% of the actual workforce. National data shows that over 80% of workers polled would prefer more flexible work options and would use them if there were no negative consequences at work. And there’s the rub: if there were no negative consequences.

Work is still changing too slowly to fit our new culture, and so we make it fit around us, often with negative consequences. It’s a cliché, but how many times has your mind been fixated on the BlackBerry during family dinner?

The good news is that many employers are more flexible about implementing flexibility, but the majority of smaller firms, where most Americans now work, don’t offer such benefits to all employees. Terms are negotiated on a case-by-case basis. Without public policy mandates, many companies are confused about how to implement change. In the 2008 National Study of Employers, those most likely to have implemented flexibility include employers with a large percentage of female senior management, companies in the nonprofit, finance, real estate and insurance industries, and those companies without union representation.

And what if employers are only part of the problem? The by-product of too many workers trying to do it all is stress on workers and their families. Ellen Galinsky, President of the Families and Work Institute says, “In my book Ask the Children, a nationally representative group of children ages eight to 18 were asked for their number one wish to improve their lives. The largest proportion wished that their parents were less tired and stressed, and one in three young people feels very stressed themselves.”

Politics has given workers a window: In perhaps the most significant signal that flexibility is on the agenda, in 2008, both the Democratic and Republican Party platforms state flexibility as a critical solution for helping families balance work and life.

Leaders and policy makers can help by looking to states and (gasp) other countries for models. They can help by raising awareness around these issues, and removing gender and class biases. Mandated time off for family needs enforces the message that leaving work is not for wimps and for lower wage workers, that it’s not a firing offense. For example, according to MomsRising.org, “Twelve states require employers to allow time for employees to participate in their childrens’ educational activities….California…gives parents 40 hours per year to participate in school activities.” (See MomsRising.org piece on Open Flexible Work.)

Motivated voters need to keep these issues on the agenda, and Democrats have an ideal ambassador in Michelle Obama, who has made better work-family policy her personal platform.

And what can we, the workers, do to make flexibility feasible? If we manage people, we can model change. We can be conscious about our choices and if we so choose, be willing to accept trade offs between life and work. Galinsky suggests,

Ask yourself: What decision will I wish I had made in five years? What will I remember in the future?  And make your decision accordingly.

We have to create our own boundaries, our own times when we turn it off. And it isn’t just turning off the electronics, it is turning off our minds going over our to-do lists for work.  Kids know when we aren’t focused. Many kids said they had techniques for seeing if their parents were really listening to them (throwing in a nonsense word in a middle of what they are saying to see if their parent noticed) or even putting their hands on our faces and saying: Earth to Mom or Earth to Dad.

I like to think Barack Obama modeled change when he took a family vacation right before the Convention. Hillary Clinton never took one day off during Primary season. That’s not a realistic or healthy example to set.

This Labor Day season, let’s think about how we can hold our leaders accountable to their promises to support more life-friendly work policies. But let’s also think about our role in managing work and life, what Joshua Halberstam, in his book Work: Making a Living and Making a Life, calls the important work of cultivating a leisure ethic.

About the Author: Morra Aarons-Mele specializes in work redesign and management training for the flexible workplace. Before focusing on organizational change, Morra worked for ten years on online campaigns for politics, advocacy groups, and corporations. Through her work as an Internet strategy consultant, she became committed to helping employers and employees create and manage programs that increase flexibility and self-directed work. Morra returned to graduate school and internships to learn this new field.

Morra writes weekly columns for BlogHer.com, the Huffington Post, and guardian.co.uk. She is also a frequent media commentator for CNN. Morra has a degree in Political Science from Brown University and a Master’s from the Harvard Kennedy School. Morra is active in local politics, and represented Washington, DC’s ANC for Ward 2B. She is married to Nicco Mele and lives near Boston.

Note: Workplace Fairness is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are their own.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.