Work-life balance: workplace flexibility is trending in the US

800px-Man_cave_officeWorkplace flexibility has been a trending US topic this year, including at the government level (municipalities adopting workplace flexibility ordinances), at the employer level (businesses undertaking initiatives to raise awareness regarding workplace flexibility options) and at the employee level (stressed caregivers weighing their career options).

Work-Life Balance Initiative

This month, job site FlexJobs kicked off its initiative for 1 Million for Workplace Flexibility, calling for employers and employees to unite in support of greater work-life balance.  Businesses and nonprofit corporations alike have a large incentive in providing workers with greater flexibility in doing their jobs: implementing options such as alternative schedules or telecommuting could aid in the organization’s retention efforts.

Many employees, when faced with competing career and personal demands, have chosen to leave an organization rather than deal with added stress.  This could be a result of strict corporate policies that may not allow for workplace flexibility, while emphasizing attendance and collaboration as a business goal. Employees may also fear asking for flexibility, believing that their careers will suffer. So instead, these employees choose to leave an organization.

Some have referred to this practice as “opting out,” in which primary caregivers (many of whom are members of protected classes) voluntarily leave their jobs in order to fulfill their personal responsibilities.

During this opting out process, an employer may lose a top performer while the employee risks very real professional penalties. Specifically, an employee may hurt his or her ability to “opt back into” the workforce, or risk opting out of top pay.

For many, full-time work has never been a choice, but rather an economic necessity. Opting out, no matter how alluring the possibility may appear, is simply not a choice for a large segment of the workforce.

Legislative Responses

Certain lawmakers have chosen to tackle this issue head-on. This month, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors passed the Family Friendly Workplace Ordinance, which would be effective on January 1, 2014. The ordinance includes protections for employees who request flexibility, and it includes a framework for challenging an employer’s denials of requests. Vermont recently passed a similar law emphasizing protections against discrimination.

However, legal requirements regarding flexible work arrangements are not confined to certain northeastern states or large coastal municipalities. Any employer that has to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) may need to allow telecommuting or similar flexible work arrangements as a reasonable accommodation of an employee’s disability.

Compliance Options

Flexible work arrangements could be arranged for a limited time, for certain times of the year or on a more permanent basis.  Even if an employer has a telecommuting policy or allows for alternative work schedules, an employee may not always be able to find a situation that fulfills his or her needs.  In this case, an employee should communicate those specific needs, and ask for things that aren’t necessarily listed in a corporate policy. Often an employer and an employee can reach a satisfactory solution.

An employer should think creatively when processing these types of requests from employees. For instance, an employer that concludes alternative work schedules or telecommuting options would not meet its business needs should consider job sharing arrangements as an option. However, excellent communication between supervisors, employees and customers or clients has to exist for a job sharing arrangement to work effectively.

Otherwise, the “two heads are better than one” adage will quickly devolve into “too many cooks spoil the broth.”

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