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Workplace Flexibility at the White House

Terrell McSweeny, Domestic Policy Advisor to the Vice President, gives her take on the White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility.

Yesterday, as noted by Valerie Jarrett in her post this afternoon, the White House hosted a first-of-its-kind forum on workplace flexibility.  Businesses (large and small), employees, advocates, labor leaders and experts spent the afternoon discussing why workplace flexibility matters – and trading information about options that are working in the workplace, such as telecommuting, flextime, job sharing, helping with childcare and eldercare, and predictable scheduling.

I finished the day with three strong impressions:  a lot has been tried, tested and learned about workplace flexibility in the last decade;  there is a business case for flexibility and basic protections that allow workers to balance work and caregiving responsibilities; and this issue matters for everyone (men and women, managers and workers, people with kids and without, hourly workers and salaried workers).

Yesterday’s forum was testament to the evolution in thinking and policy development around flexibility that has occurred in the last decade.  First, it was pretty extraordinary to have the First Lady and President host a discussion on workplace flexibility at the White House.  But beyond that, there was also recognition by all participants that this is not a niche “mommy” issue or even just an issue for parents.   As the President noted yesterday, flexibility affects the strength of our economy, the well-being of communities and the health of families. 

One of the things that was most compelling about the discussion yesterday was the evidence companies brought to it.  In one breakout session, Dick Clark of JetBlue noted that as a relatively new company JetBlue had benefited from the work of many forum attendees, like Johnson & Johnson, that pioneered flexibility policies.  They applied what they learned, creating a highly flexible environment in their reservation center.  The result?  High employee productivity and engagement, and - critically important for their business – better customer service.  

This example, and the dozens like it brought to the discussion, underscore the business case for flexibility. I was struck by the level of consensus among the employers at the table that flexibility policies increase engagement, productivity, and retention.  The excellent Council of Economic Advisors report released yesterday also found that companies with flexible work arrangements can actually have lower turnover and absenteeism, higher productivity and healthier workers.

But workplace flexibility also makes sense for the economic security of the middle class – as the Middle Class Task Force has laid out in various reports.  More than ever families need both parents to work in order to maintain a middle class lifestyle.  This is especially true after a decade in which income growth for the middle class has been flat.  Two-thirds of American families with children are headed by two working parents or a single working parent.  Women are in the workforce in virtually equal numbers as men.  Of course, not everyone has children.  But as a friend recently pointed out, almost all of us have parents.  Nearly one-fifth of employed people in 2009 were caregivers who provided care for a person over the age of 50.   Put simply, the new normal for American families and workers is juggling family caregiving, lifelong learning and work.  In his remarks yesterday, the President acknowledged this - and reiterated the call for the enactment of two Middle Class Task Force proposals that will help improve middle class family economic security:  increasing the Child and Dependent Care Tax credit for middle class families and providing more support for people caring for elderly family members or a person with a disability. 

These proposals and workplace flexibility make sense for all workers -not just parents and families.   If you don’t have kids, you might have parents you need to care for, an evening class to attend or a community activity that you care about.  As the President said, “workplace flexibility isn’t just a women’s issue… it reflects our priorities as a society.”

Terrell McSweeny is Domestic Policy Advisor to the Vice President