Flexibility Without Bending Over Backwards

As a working mother and grandmother trying to balance it all, I've spent decades creating and evolving my own strategy of integrating my personal and professional lives as my life both at home and at work has changed over time. As the president and COO of Bright Horizons, I am also in the business of helping others to achieve better work/life integration; and I am someone who has championed an employer-of-choice mentality in our own organization.

Balancing Work and Family

The reality is that lots of working parents are coming up with creative and untraditional ways of integrating work and family life, whether they are taking long and sequential parental leaves, shortening their workweeks, working at home, or taking turns staying home. Quietly, these families are forging a new lifestyle that expands conventional notions of what is possible. They're not the norm perhaps, but they're out there and they are increasing in numbers. The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that last year some 15 percent of employed parents with children under the age of 6 worked part time (mostly women, but also around 3 percent of working men with children that age). Furthermore, according to the bureau's latest statistics, about 30 percent of both men and women with children under 6 have flexible schedules.

Origins of the Need for Flexibility

The need for flexibility has been influenced by a variety of societal changes and workplace challenges, including more dual-income families, rising divorces rates, people living and working longer, our global economy, a shrinking talent pool, and the 24/7 nature of business that is fueled by technology innovations. Yet, flexible work schedules have been around for a while. Flexible work schedules actually first entered the professional ranks with teachers. Teachers already had a schedule that included summers off and an appealing 'school hours' schedule, but teaching was also a profession that seemed to provide a 'natural fit' for job sharing because teachers could easily split their day by subject matter or class times. Slowly, flexible work arrangements spread into other professional ranks, mostly driven by working mothers applying for part-time positions or 'special projects' jobs that allowed them to retain their professional status but more or less removed them from mainstream management and decision making.

Flexibility Today

Fortunately, employers today are more enlightened. Flexible work arrangements and employer-supported child care are becoming much more popular. More and more companies are beginning to understand that nothing builds loyalty more than an investment in their employees' families. And, there's a rapidly growing understanding that no one benefits from squeezing everyone into a one-sizefits- all mold, that the heart of the matter is getting the job done, and that an employee whose personal requirements are respected is more likely to work harder. But we still have a way to go. Too often still, employers see acknowledgment of their workers' needs as concession rather than as an investment. Too often, employees are charged for such 'concessions' whether through lower wages, smaller raises, or slower promotions. The shift to a new and more enlightened paradigm is still very much a work in progress. Current demographic shifts are creating even more challenges. Now that people are waiting longer to have children, we see many more people sandwiched between the demands of their children and of their own parents. Genuine flexibility is not always simply a pleasant luxury. Sometimes it's an absolute necessity. Nor is flexibility just an issue for working mothers or their aging parents. It's an issue for working dads who need to pitch in to support their working wives. It's an issue for the more mature workforce, many of whom need to work longer because they don't have suitable retirement funds, but want or need to work in nontraditional ways. And, it's an issue for young, single employees, who are often joining the workforce less willing to put in the hours their parents did.

Family Vs Employee Concerns

In a study Bright Horizons conducted with Simmons College School of Management to evaluate work/life trends, we found that 95 percent of the people surveyed rated their life outside of work as equally important to their jobs. These 'dual-centric' employees equally prioritize work and personal/family life, a perspective that has been linked to employees feeling more successful at work and less stressed. What was also interesting is that the data showed that life outside of work was as important to men as it is to women. We also asked people to define their ideal job. The factors they rated covered a diverse set of motivations and priorities both for their life at work and their life outside of work. Of all factors they were asked to rate, 'working for an organization that respects personal/family time' and 'working for a supervisor who is responsive to personal/ family concerns' were among the most highly rated. These findings applied both to employees with children at home and to employees without children at home.

Adapting as an Employer

At Bright Horizons, we very much want to be an employer of choice. We've been recognized eight times as one of FORTUNE magazine's '100 Best Companies to Work For' and we want to maintain that status. We also realize that being an employer of choice is a conscious strategy; it doesn't just happen. We approach flexibility not as a benefit, an accommodation, or an entitlement. We are convinced that when our employees work in partnership through an accessible, fair, and consistent decision-making process, the result can, and will be, a win-win for both Bright Horizons and for our employees. Flexible work arrangements for us include flex-schedule, reduced schedules, part-time work, telework, job sharing, and remote work, but we also recognize that some flexible work options will not be suitable for all work units, job functions, or for some individuals, so approval of the options is always at the manager's discretion.

We also believe it is our responsibility as an employer to help create enlightened managers and give them the tools they need to help them make it happen. At Bright Horizons, we also have guiding principles that describe the spirit in which flexible work schedules are offered and help managers determine when a flexible arrangement makes business sense; for example, meeting the business goals is the first priority, collaboration between managers and employees is essential, and performance is not defined by physical presence, to name just a few. So yes, creating a flexible workplace may be uncomfortable for some at first. It may mean putting ourselves in positions that don't feel natural, trying new postures and striking new poses. It may even mean that we bend over backward sometimes to make a situation work for that star employee we don't want to lose. The more we stretch, the more flexible we become, and that's not only a good thing for our employees, it's a good thing for the business too.

Written by: Bright Horizons Blog Editor

About the Author

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The Bright Horizons Blog Editor frequently posts on the real solutions that meaningfully support employees, advance careers, and drive the world’s leading brands. The Editor curates the latest news, trends, and challenges facing HR pros because your time is scarce. Follow the Bright Horizons Blog to receive this insight in your inbox.