The Inflexibility of Flex Work

Working late at nightLast month when I attended the White House Summit with Women AdvaNCe, I was impressed by how many elected officials and business leaders seemed to “get it” when talking about the need for work-life balance. From Michelle Obama to BET CEO Debra Lee, everyone had a personal story about how family-friendly policies affected their lives.

But even as President Obama stood (not 20 feet from our table!) and promised that the federal government would recommit itself to ensuring flexible schedules for all its employees, I had my doubts.

Luckily, I had the opportunity to voice my concerns. During a panel discussion including Nancy Pelosi and Gloria Steinem, moderator and Morning Joe host Mika Brzezinski read my question aloud. “This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about, too,” she said, tapping on her iPad. “What do we do about companies where family-friendly policies are in place, but there is an unwritten rule against using them?”

According to a study published by the Sloan Foundation, 35% of employees working for companies that offer flexible work situations feel that they are unable to work flexibly, or that there would be negative career consequences associated with using that benefit. It’s clear that a culture shift is needed.

In the past 50 years, women have joined the workforce in increasing numbers and more families have had to make do with less family time. In North Carolina, more than 60% of young children live in households where all parents work. That number increases to 72% when including all children under age 12. That’s an enormous chunk of the workforce that may need to come to work late to attend a teacher a meeting, leave early to attend a school performance, or miss work altogether for a sick child.

More companies are putting policies on the books to allow workers to telecommute, change their schedules, or even bring kids to work. But the truth is, many of these policies serve as a carrot to incentivize prospective employees to join the company with the promise of a progressive work environment. For example, although men have the ability to take 12 weeks off for the birth of a child, a small percentage ever do, even in California, where family leave is paid at 55% of salary.

In 2007 my husband took two weeks off of work from UNC Chapel Hill after the birth of our first child. In 2009 he did the same. Both times he spent substantial parts of his unpaid leave answering work emails and calls, and writing reports too urgent to leave until his return.

Like my husband, many employees face workloads that don’t disappear or decrease when they leave the office. This means someone working four 10-hour days in order to have a three-day weekend can expect to squeeze in unpaid overtime when their co-workers are still in the office on Friday. A good friend of mine works a 75% schedule—she takes every Wednesday off to be with her children and take care of household needs. A few weeks ago when my friend and I spent a Wednesday afternoon together, she returned no fewer than 40 work emails, at least 5 of which appeared to be urgent and critical.

Companies benefit from nominal family-first policies, while workers work their butts off and are expected to feel grateful for the flexibility. The current work culture expects employees to “give until they bleed,” and it mean parents are emailing in bed, checking iPads before breakfast, and working through lunch.

Of course the situation is far worse in blue collar or pink collar industries—those in which women hold the majority of the jobs. For many working behind a fast food counter or cleaning a hotel, paid leave to deal with a family emergency is a distant dream. It doesn’t help that women are often the ones who handle elder care and sick kids, and every year thousands of women lose their jobs for choosing to pick a child up from school instead of finishing a shift at work.

Reports show that nearly a third of low-income women workers delay medical care because they are unable to take time off work—either due to a lack of pay, or unwritten internal policies that punish those who take sick leave. These decisions to work through poor health punish families and companies alike. In fast food professions, 63% of employees report cooking and serving food while ill.

I’m willing to bet if you looked in the employee manual of these restaurants, you’d find hard and fast rules about not working while sick. But the reality is that supervisors often are under-trained or under pressure to meet inflexible budgets or schedules that mean they leave the workers’ health behind.

From grocery store cashiers to Fortune 500 ad reps, there is not a single employee who would not benefit from a workplace culture that puts families first. It’s essential that HR departments and managers look beyond what’s on paper and truly examine their corporate culture to ensure that employees find balance—whether it’s in the ability to coach a son’s Little League team or head home for a sick day without worrying about losing her job job.

How does your workplace ensure work-life balance? Tweet us using the hashtag #Flexible to join the conversation.




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