Dads Want Workplace Flexibility, Too, Expert Says

Filed under: Work Life, Opinions

When I wrote last week about workplace flexibility and my frustration that so many mothers have to drop out of their careers because of the lack of it, you had a lot to say.

Some of you have experienced the same frustration, while others vented that mothers shouldn't get special treatment at the office over and above other employees.

Your comments inspired me to look at this topic more closely. Are women asking too much of their employers? Is a flexible job limited to higher-paid employees only? Do men wish they had more flexibility to work from home or work different hours, or is this just a "mommy problem?" How should an employee propose a more flexible position to his or her boss?

I was fortunate to have a conversation with Lois Backon, senior vice president of the Families and Work Institute and co-director of When Work Works, a nationwide initiative to bring research on workplace effectiveness and flexibility into community and business practice. She helped me separate myth from reality.

Q: Several ParentDish readers expressed aggravation that non-parent workers have to "pick up the slack" when mothers ask to leave early or want more flexible hours or the ability to work from home. Are mothers asking for unfair special treatment?

Backon: Our research shows that 87 percent of all employees -- men, women, younger, older, salaried or hourly -- put workplace flexibility as the top consideration when looking at a new job. It's not just mothers who are asking for and want flexibility. A big driver of flexibility right now is the aging workforce, people who can't afford to retire and are finding it tough to straddle work, eldercare responsibilities, grandparenting and their own physical health issues.

Q: Still, based on the comments, a lot of people consider flexible hours and similar kinds of practices a special accommodation.

Backon: Our data show that it's a smart business practice. If you look at companies that are highly effective, with flexible workplace practices, they are doing better than their counterparts. They have much higher employee retention rates, employee job satisfaction and employee engagement. We found that 79 percent of employees who work at flexible companies report excellent or good health, while only 21 percent of employees working at companies with poor or fair flexibility report good health. Think of the impact that could have on a company's health insurance costs.

Q: A few men raised their voices to point out that I shouldn't have limited my piece to mothers who need to be able to care for their kids. What about men? Do they want flexibility, too?

Backon: Men are definitely seeking more balance, too -- 70 percent of all couples are now dual-earners, and men are now sharing more of the household duties than ever before, including childcare. In fact, more men say they are experiencing high levels of work-life conflict than women.

Q: Is workplace flexibility something to which only white collar or salaried employees have access? What about hourly workers? Is it possible for service-oriented organizations, like stores that need people on the floor, to be flexible?

Backon: We are now seeing manufacturing and retail companies becoming more flexible, as well. One practice we've seen is allowing teams to come together to figure out scheduling that works for all of the team members. They are being creative and making things work and it benefits everyone, including the employer.

Q: Whether it's a mom or dad or grandparent or anyone else that would like more flexibility at their job, what advice would you give them?

Backon: One idea is to propose a pilot. Tell your employer this doesn't have to be a permanent solution, but something you could do for a short trial to see if it works. Explain why your proposal would make you more productive and suggest ideas on how the effectiveness of the pilot would be measured. We offer a comprehensive list of tips and tools for employees that I would also encourage your readers to check out.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.