Written by Corinne Garcia Tuesday, September 18 2012
Snapshot: Kathleen Christensen, Director of the Workplace, Work Force and Working Families Program of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
What if you could show up to work earlier and leave in time to pick up kids from school? Or maybe you could work a condensed workweek, four 10-hour days, and take Fridays off to help your aging mother. What if the company you worked for allowed you to choose the schedule that best suits your lifestyle? Do you think you’d be more productive?
It’s called workplace flexibility, and it’s coming to an office near you, thanks in part to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Kathleen Christensen. Spearheading the Workplace, Work Force and Working Families program, Christensen has been helping to create a national movement to create more flexible workplaces, with the win-win goal of creating smarter work environments and more highly engaged employees.
Womenetics: How did you get your start with the Sloan Foundation?
Kathleen Christensen: In the mid 1990s, I was a professor of psychology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, doing research on women and work. Most of my research focused on women and home-based work, and at that time, most women who worked in the home were self-employed.
I was looking at how the home, which was designed as the workplace for a mother and homemaker, was now expected to support her additional role as a breadwinner. I was interested in the stresses that were put on the mothers, the fathers and the kids when a home that wasn’t designed to support both breadwinning and mothering roles did do so.
During that time, I was approached by the Sloan Foundation to see if I was interested in Sloan financial support for my research. While very tempting, I said no because at the time I had a lot of money from the federal government, and I didn’t have the same research focus as Sloan. Two years later, however, they asked if I would take a leave from the university to start a research program for issues facing middle-class working families.
I started my leave in the fall of 1994, and three years later I had to make a decision to return to the university or stay here. It was a difficult decision because I loved doing my own research, and as an academic I was a free agent. But I decided to stay because no one else had funded this kind of work. We really needed to understand what was happening and how the critical infrastructure, such as the workplace and employment law, could better support working families.
Womenetics: Can you tell me about the studies and findings that were supported by the Sloan program you directed?
Christensen: Throughout this research there was a general consensus that even when a family had financial resources with the woman working, they didn’t have the resource of time. And lower income families didn’t have financial resources, time resources or control over their time. Even though we’d been living with this for 20 to 30 years, with women’s increased entry to the workplace, there still wasn’t enough research in place that really looked at the family as a whole.
We funded a number of research centers at leading U.S. universities to examine the effects on the family of having all the adults in the household working for pay. It became really clear to me reading the research results that what was really happening was that there was a massive time famine in these families. While in the traditional families there had been two jobs, one paid and one unpaid as a homemaker, now there were three jobs, one unpaid as a homemaker and two breadwinning jobs, so the demands outstripped the families’ resources.
It was somewhat of a gender issue, as women had a second shift now and were doing much more. Even if all of the parenting and household responsibilities were split 50/50, a working parent would still have 1.5 jobs – still too much. The situation was exacerbated for single parents. Today, the division of labor has become a bit more equitable with regard to childrearing, but the management and care of the house and running of the family is typically still the women’s responsibility.
Womenetics: How did that research spark a movement toward a more flexible workplace?
Christensen: It was clear that with a time deficient household, flexibility was what was needed. Around 2000, I decided with the agreement of the Foundation that we were going to put our energy into launching a national initiative to make workplace flexibility a compelling national issue. Subsequent research also showed that a desire for economic security is the only thing that trumps the desire for workplace flexibility.
I worked with several Sloan grantees on language and came up with the term “workplace flexibility” so we could track if our efforts were having consequences. Now that term is used more often than not.
Womenetics: What kind of strategy did you put in place to reach people on a national level?
Christensen: I pursued two distinct, but complementary funding strategies: to support activities that would increase voluntary employer adoption of workplace flexibility and to change the conversation in Washington, D.C. so that diverse stakeholders – parents, older workers, those with disabilities, those in the military or actively practicing their faith – saw that they each had a vested interested in having a more flexible workplace.
This meant broadening the conversation around flexibility beyond family leave [maternity leave] to include three types of flexibility: day-to-day, as in the ability to have control over work time; time off flexibility; and career flexibility.
Womenetics: What do you mean by career flexibility?
Christensen: We need career paths that allow people to move up at their own pace. Many career paths are still characterized by a straight-line trajectory, but that doesn’t reflect how people actually live their lives. Many times people step up, step aside or step out while they are having families, and they want to have the opportunity to step back in.
The conversation has been going on since the 1980s about why some mothers are dropping out of the workforce. But it’s the wrong question; we should be asking to where are they dropping. If they had flexibility, they probably would not have left the workplace. Instead, many started businesses at home or became consultants; they weren’t dropping out, they were dropping down or stepping out for a while. And the intent was not to leave workplace all together. People need different paces and tempos at different times, and this affects all of us in some way or another.
Womenetics: How does workplace flexibility extend its reach to benefit others, besides families?
Christensen: We started looking at the needs of working parents, and it was quickly apparent that it wasn’t just working parents who needed this flexibility. Older workers needed and wanted it, especially with increased rates of those working beyond conventional retirement ages of 62 and 65. Many of those with disabilities wanted to be gainfully employed but didn’t have the stamina to work entire shifts. Members of the military who were trying to reenter the workforce sometimes need more flexibility, and spouses of military needed it. People who actively practice faith need flexibility on a day-to-day basis.
It just ended up being a situation in which almost every group needed it. We saw that with the millennials as well. They want to work hard, but they want to still have a life. And even single women — at times they feel like every other group gets privileged with flexibility except for them; in many cases they’re the ones that have to work the holidays, but they want flexibility too.
Womenetics: What were the hurdles you faced in making workplace flexibility a compelling national issue?
Christensen: If you add up all the millions of people who have these problems, we have one whopping problem — the need to lead productive work lives and still lead satisfied and productive personal lives. But people still saw these issues as problems that they had to solve individually and privately, and if they didn’t something was wrong with them. We had to show that these are public problems that need public attention. That was one of the goals, to make these issues very explicit.
Also, people tend to call it an alternative work arrangement, and that very language makes it deviant, like it’s different than what everyone else does. That stigma remains. It represents one of the major hurdles.
Womenetics: Can you tell me about your strategy to raise awareness throughout the business world?
Christensen: We worked with the private sector to show them that flexibility wasn’t a benefit; it’s a strategic business tool. All three forms of flexibility — when properly designed and implemented — can increase performance with more highly engaged employees, reduce cost, turnover, paid time off, recruiting and training, and result in creative, more innovative ways of getting work done.
We funded the Family and Work Institute to recognize those businesses through Alfred P. Sloan Awards for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility. They have now partnered with the Society for Human Resources Management — the largest HR organization in the world, and over 2,000 companies have won.
Womenetics: How did this research and these awards align with the goals of the Sloan Foundation?
Christensen: Alfred P. Sloan was considered the father of modern management theory; the award name was kept as Sloan because flexibility really is the next wave of modern management.
Also, in 1994 when I initially joined the foundation, the president at that time felt strongly about the issue because he had been a senior executive at IBM and saw such loss of human capital as women left the workplace. IBM was actually much further ahead of others in workplace flexibility, but a lot were still leaving.
Womenetics: What tips do you have for employees looking for more flexibility?
Christensen: Essentially, the person requesting has to make the case for how their work will improve or remain constant. What’s made it easier is that many people work on teams now, and they can say, “For the next three weeks I need to leave at five,” and work it out with their team.
Sometimes there’s a poverty of imagination, like we can’t imagine doing work in any other way. It wasn’t like we asked and were told no; we sometimes never ask. One has to figure out what they want, and go and make the case—this isn’t just about me whining; it’s good for me but also for the business.
Try to work more collectively within the organization so that the consciousness is raised, such as encouraging the HR department to go for a Sloan award. Or propose that the HR department do some kind of flexibility program on a pilot basis.
Womenetics: What tips do you have for employers?
Christensen: The companies that have been leaders in this have top executives that realize that this flexibility is not a benefit, it’s a smarter way of doing business. Many have adopted an approach to flexibility that said, look we’re not philanthropy, we are a bottom line business, but you all decide when and how you’re going to work. We expect growth, but you figure out how that will happen.
One company I’ve worked with had a woman working that was extremely productive, but she decided to quit because she had no life. Her boss had an aha moment and looked at the way they did their work and decided that more flexibility was the smart way to get work done.
Employers should offer a safe place to talk about it. If you tell employees that they can ask for it, in this economy, they aren’t going to ask for it. The key is for management to make it a reasonable, accepted way to work by building a culture of respect, trust and safety.
And it’s not gong to work to just say, “We’ll implement work at home,” and expect everyone to do it because some people would rather be in a workplace. They would rather have flextime, not telecommuting. So it has to be tailored to specific needs.
For companies, the awards programs are so important, allowing them to be recognized at annual events by their peers, while spreading the word on the importance of the issue.
Womenetics: What would you like to see for the future of workplace flexibility?
Christensen: That it becomes such a normal way of doing business, with more highly engaged employees, that it doesn’t even have a name, it just is. I’d like to see flexibility defined as something having value for employees and employers, each side getting something. Flexibility has to be available to all income groups. Today, more professionals tend to have more flexibility. It has to be gender equitable — women need flexibility, but men tend to get more. People are going to see that it makes sense. I am absolutely convinced that this is the way work is going to be done. I wouldn’t have spent over 25 years of my life devoted to advancing it otherwise.
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Corinne Garcia is a freelance writer and editor living with her husband and two young boys in Bozeman, Mont. She has also written for Women’s Adventure, Christian Science Monitor, Northwest Travel, Pregnancy, Fit Pregnancy and Fit Parent.