Guest post by Kathleen Christensen
Just about every working mom will tell you one of the things she wants most from her workplace is flexibility in how, when and where the work gets done. (For that matter, most working dads, working single people, and – well, everyone – now says the same thing.) So it’s no surprise that companies large and small have started to view workplace flexibility as an imperative to attracting and retaining good employees. Firms of all sizes now offer creative options like telecommuting, part-time work, paid leave and career breaks, and it seems every day we read about a new company or industry that has embraced workplace flexibility and realized it’s good for the bottom line.
So – employees want flexibility, companies want to offer it –problem solved, right? Not so fast. When I talk to working parents today, I still see a major disconnect. Most people are employed in jobs that don’t offer them the kind of flexibility they feel they need to properly attend to work and family life. Whenever there is a story in the papers about workplace flexibility, most working parents read it and say, "that sounds great -- but how come I don't have it?"
A good example is the recent New York Times article that cited many real-world examples of accounting firms that offer flex programs. Yet many of the comments on the Times Web site read like this:
"This has got to be an April Fools joke. There is no flexibility at big 4 accounting firms. They advertise flexibility, they don't practice it.... When I worked at a big 4 accounting firm, you'd get dirty looks if you were to dare leave the office before 6pm. That is not flexibility"
"I can tell you, it's not really like this. Many audit teams have mandatory 60+ hour weeks plus weekends. And if you're productive and get your work done quickly, they will reward you with someone else's work."
Apparently, there is a big flexibility gap in this industry, with a lot of people saying "hey, why not me? Where's my flex?" But the gap is not limited to accounting. Recent research shows that while 80 percent of workers want flexibility, only about a third have it. So what gives? If employees want flexibility and employers know it works, then where is this disconnect coming from?
In large part it stems from firms not putting their money where their mouth is. Even at companies that have workplace flexibility programs in place, many people don’t feel they have access. It’s one thing to put a workplace flexibility program on the books; it’s quite another to say you’re really offering it to every employee.
We know that a major barrier to implementing flexibility stems from the behaviors of middle managers or supervisors who may not be aware of flexibility policies, or may feel that they are stretched thin and cannot see how to provide flexibility without it being a zero sum game. What I would like to see is companies implement practices whereby managers are held accountable for how well and how fairly they implement flexibility, so that it’s no longer seen as a perk for some, but a necessity for all.
So I wonder what experiences CurrentMom readers have had. Do you have workplace flexibility programs at your company? Are they available to all, or only to some? What do we have to do to close the workplace flexibility gap?
Kathleen E. Christensen is the program director for workplace, work force and working families at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.