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On June 7 I attended the event that is now plastering the news: the First Lady Michelle Obama spoke out on work life issues. For example:
New York Times and ABC News.

You may have even heard some of the lines from her speech at Corporate Voices for Working Families—that she is a 120 percenter, meaning that if she hasn’t done any job at 120 percent, she thinks she is failing or that she has a blessed life now, with all kinds of support including a personal assistant—everyone needs a personal assistant! And you may have heard that she called for more work life assistance, from paid time off to quality child care.

Mrs. Obama ended the public part of her speech by saying:

I am looking forward to learning what works and what doesn’t work [in business initiatives in work life], what’s economically feasible, what I can do to be of help in furthering some of these agendas.
At a private meeting that I attended with her following her speech, Mrs. Obama heard more about “what works” from two companies and asked us why these initiatives aren’t more widespread. If family friendly programs and policies are so good for employers and employees, she asked, then why aren’t more companies providing them?

According to my organization’s 2008 nationally representative study of the U.S. workforce, Mrs. Obama is right on target. For example, only 50% of employees strongly agree that they have the flexibility they need to successfully manage their work and family lives.

The people around the table suggested a number of reasons why more companies don’t provide flexibility and other work life programs. They said it can be more difficult to manage employees who are working flexibly, flexibility is seen as a perk, not a business strategy, and some programs can cost money.

Then a man in finance spoke up. He said, “Show me the dollars saved by these programs.” Although it wasn’t mentioned, if someone assumes that “presence equals productivity,” they dismiss even dollars and cents arguments.

The First Lady has asked for our help, and has said she wants to “further this agenda.” What would you say to her that’s working, that’s not working, and how the work life agenda can be furthered? I will pass on your comments to her office.


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