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Last week I attended the Department of Labor’s conference to spark a National Dialogue on Workplace Flexibility, run by the Women’s Bureau and Department of  Labor in California.

The goal of this conference was to have a business-to-business discussion on workplace flexibility. Over 400 business, union leaders, academics, work life consultants, and policy makers were there.  The conference was opened by Sarah Manzano Diaz, the director of the Women’s Bureau and Hilda Solis, the Secretary of Labor who is the first female Cabinet-level Hispanic woman.

Workplace polices and practices have not caught up with a 21st century workforce’s need for flexibility in hours and scheduling. Fathers, mothers, younger and older workers all need flexibility to care for children, elders leaving the hospital sicker.

Flexibility is essential to care for families. It is essential for workers to stay employed in this challenging economy while caring for families.  A highlight of the conference was the Zaziie Restaurant owner’s--Jennifer  Pillalat--decision to offer 401 k and flexibility and benefits for all workers, including part-time workers who work at least a day a week. While her labor costs are the highest in her business, so are her profits, so it pays off. She has  not had turnover in her kitchen for seven years.

I also enjoyed Joan Williams’ comments that companies focus too much on the front end labor costs of minimal staffing and tough absenteeism policies and not enough on back end costs of turnover and negative work behaviors.

Companies also need help with implementing flexibility and culture change. A founding member of The National Work Family Health Network, we are partnering with companies to help them design and implement scientifically-based workplace interventions to reduce work-family conflict and improve worker productivity and health.

I encourage future conferences to look at helping individual employees in managing technology as a flexibility challenge from work spilling over to family life via cell phones and lap tops for workers who work online a lot. I have coauthored a book called CEO of Me: Creating a Life that Works in the Flexible Job Age (Wharton/Financial Times Press/ Pearson) that looks at supports for individual self-regulation of boundaries as well as helping give people tools to manage boundaries with a new assessment tool,  called workstyle profile, that is available online in April from the Center for Creative Leadership. Go to www.thesustainableworkforceorg or for more about this and my other work.

It is a wonderful time to be a work-family expert, researcher, and organizational speaker, and see the changes that are coming!

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