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Morra Aarons-Mele's picture

At the inaugural White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility yesterday President Obama stressed the profound disconnect between the needs of our families and the demands of our workplaces. As a whole our culture sees flexibility as a special perk for women rather than as a critical part of a workplace that can help all of us. Equally worrying is the way constant contact with our work--via mobile technology--is eroding any sense of separation between home and work. Sometimes the race to respond to a colleague's email overwhelms any rational sense of how urgent that email actually is.

President Obama said that how we treat our employees and each other at work "reflects our priorities as a society...raising the next generation and caring for our loved ones is the most important job you have. " Sometimes I think we don't care very much.

Jamie Oliver echoed this point, but through food. Last Friday night, like much of America it seems, I watched Oliver's Food Revolution. The program was simply stunning. One of the most moving moments was Jamie's sheer shock that kids at elementary school aren't allowed to eat with knives and forks. Everything served was finger or spoon food- almost as if the kids are in jail. There is something sub-human about not teaching 6 year olds how to eat like civilized people. Do we really expect so little from them?

The message from the elementary school on Oliver's show was "we don't trust kids enough," and so they remove the tools kids need to manage eating. This must hold them back and it doesn't let them think critically.

In the adult world, many workplaces don't trust employees enough, and so they don't provide the tools people need to manage their lives. It seems ridiculous that managers might not trust an employee (who daily manages profit and loss, product launches, or company property) to manage home life and work life, but there it is. Take this comment from a blog reader on the topic:

Ninety percent of my work could be done remotely if it were acceptable at my company. But face time is still important here. We use Web conferencing all the time to talk to employees in other offices, so why can't we use them to conference wherever we are? Currently they get 8 hours of work out of me because it is 50 min commute (5 min to drop at daycare) - work - 45 min commute timed to get there before daycare closes. How great would it be to do 5 min walk - work - 5 min walk back to home office?

At the White House yesterday, ROWE's Jody Thompson said simply, we need to give people their lives back. A flexible schedule is an oxymoron: let people structure their own time at work. It's a radical idea but the notion underlying it is simple.

Most people think of schedule flexibility as a perk- but journalist Claire Shipman said, based on the results it produces, "we should call work life balance 'make more money.'" Firms often think about it as a cost- but the Council of Economic Advisers' new report finds 1/3 of workers say workplace flexibility is the no. 1 thing they think about when getting a job. It helps workers, boosts the bottom line, and it helps the whole economy.

CEO Jim Turley at Ernst & Young agrees that trust is critical. At his firm there was too much discussion of flexibility, too much dissection of policy. He said, we changed it to flex being a right for everyone. You need to separate workplace flexibility or the right to manage your own time from having a Flexible Work Arrangement, such as working part time. When the two are confused, flexibility can become too gendered. Indeed, many people think flexibility is a one-way ticket to the mommy track.

Challenging teams to manage their schedules and home lives can incubate creative thinking. Managers and teams who empower their employees to get work done on their own time create, in the words of Campbell's Soup CEO Doug Conant, "a high engagement, high trust culture." 85% of Campbell's employees, he said, are comfortable enough to have a conversation around flexibility. Earnings and sales have increased each year- even in this recession.

It is challenging to implement flex for shift-based or manufacturing employees. But Campbell's Conant noted his Campbell's soup supply chain fulfillment team came up with a flexible teleworking schedule that allowed them to fulfill international orders around the clock, and manage home responsibilities. They come together on Wednesday, and at month's end to close the month.

A representative from the White House said telework during the recent blizzards saved $30 million a day in productivity costs at the economic offices. Inc. Magazine just published a whole magazine without anyone coming into the office.

Everyone deserves flexibility, but being a working parent demands flexible and nimble thinking. The First Lady relayed her own hairy job search as a new mother. She was on maternity leave with Sasha- and got a call for an interview. She couldn't find a babysitter, so she brought the newborn on the interview! I was lucky, the First Lady said, that Sasha slept through the interview. She was also lucky that she was interviewing with the president of the Hospitals who had just had a baby and was open-minded.

Many people aren't that lucky, she noted. Many people don't even have a paid sick day. Most are struggling every day- to find childcare. Public policy must be amended to provide a baseline for employers to follow. Like in most American innovations, policy provides the floor and sets employers on a course. The rest demands culture change and trust in employees to both do a good job and do what is right for their family.

I was impressed that the CEOs' overall attitude was "let people figure it out." This is what changes culture.

Arianna Huffington worries about the loss of innovation in America. If we don't expose our children to the tools they need to mature, and don't encourage adult workers to successfully juggle home and work demands, how can we possibly innovate?

Also see Dan Froomkin's piece on the Forum; Ellen Galinsky's piece on the Forum.

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