The State Of The Workplace

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

At the turn of the 20th century, the American family faced a most unfriendly workplace. Breadwinners could expect to work a minimum 10-hour day, six days a week, in brutal conditions. The minimum wage, health insurance, sick days, and paid vacation were fantasy.

The snapshot of the workplace at the start of the 21st century is noticeably different. Laws limit the length of the workweek and mandate overtime pay, a minimum wage, and workplace safety. Employer-subsidized health insurance, vacation and sick leave are the norm. And more recent innovations—unpaid family leave, child-care subsidies and work/life conferences—are becoming commonplace. Some employers even offer quirky benefits like access to pet insurance.

The ‘family friendly’ revolution
The quest to help employees find the perfect balance between work and family obligations has become so popular that it has spawned an industry of work/life professionals — in higher education, in the advocacy community and in government. In December 1999, the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management, which has its own family-oriented Workplace Working Group, praised agencies with the best work/life programs.

Magazines like Fortune and Working Mother encourage the same kind of competition in the private sector. Every year, Fortune names the “100 Best Companies to Work For,” while Working Mother ranks the “100 Best Companies for Working Mothers.” Benefits geared toward the family are at the heart of both lists, and companies diligently seek that high-profile recognition.

“Particularly in the last couple of years with the war for talent,” says Carlene Zuzith, assistant vice president of human resources for Working Mother’s No. 2-ranked Allstate Insurance Company, “it has become even more important for attracting talent. Employees tell us that these things are really very important to them. They’re high value.”

Today’s workplace is, in a phrase, “family friendly.” “When you take that very long view, there are a lot of positives to think about in the last century,” said Shelly McDermid, director of the Purdue University Center for Families, noting developments like family leave, child-labor laws, Social Security and laws against pregnancy-related discrimination. “That’s pretty exciting.”

The changes have become more pronounced in the past 20 years, says Susan Seitel, president of the Minnesota-based Work and Family Connection, a clearinghouse that tracks work/life developments. She points to the growth of child-care programs as an example. Only 400 employer-supported plans existed when her firm began tracking the issue in 1984; today there are about 8,000.

Flexibility matters most
One of the more significant developments, the experts agree, is the introduction of flexibility, especially in the white-collar world. The 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday office job remains the standard, but more employers are offering “alternative work schedules” such as:

  • A compressed workweek, where, for example, employees work 10 hours a day, with every other Friday off;
  • Job sharing, where two people work part time to complete a job once done by one employee;
  • Compensatory time/flex time, where hourly employees are given the choice of taking 1.5 hours off for every one hour of overtime worked in place of overtime pay;
  • And part-time work with full benefits.

Employers even have begun to let their workers mix and match alternative work schedules. “The employer has to be willing to look at each and every job they have and ask, ‘How much flexibility can we have?'” says James Kisela, president and chief executive officer of the consulting company Work/Life Productions Inc. “Total flexibility says you can do your job anywhere. You do your job whenever and however you want to do it.”

Several factors are driving the changes: the entrance of women into the workplace, the increasing life expectancy and the transition of the baby boomers into retirement, the way employers view employees (as “responsible adults,” says Seitel), and leadership from elected officials.

Many work/life professionals in particular praise President Clinton, who demonstrated his commitment to the work/family cause by making a mandate of 12 weeks of unpaid family leave the first law he signed in 1993. Employers fought the idea for years because of the cost, but many corporations have offered other new benefits since then. “When they did get into it,” Kisela says, “they realized, ‘Well, this really isn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.'”

What goes up …
There may be more to come. In his 1999 State of the Union address, Clinton proposed an array of new benefits, everything from a federal child-care plan to a tax credit for long-term care. He and other officials and work/life advocates also have backed an expansion of the family-leave law to include paid family leave funded by the unemployment-insurance program.

Those proposals are not likely to find much favor in a Bush administration and Republican-controlled Congress that have promised to curtail the regulatory reach of government. But they probably will resurface high on the agenda when the political terrain changes again.

In the meantime, employers could initiate more changes of their own. Seitel, for example, says more employers could adopt a new approach to benefits: “cafe” plans that let employees choose the benefits most important to them. “The most innovative thing that companies do,” she says, “is to give employees more choice.”

Work/life experts do lament that benefits like childcare and elder care are not more widespread. And some also worry that the fascination with the family-friendly workplace will end when the economy turns downward. The number of employers who are discontinuing health coverage for their employees, for instance, concerns McDermid.

The problem, Seitel says, is that too many employers still don’t believe that helping their workers balance their lives at work and home has a positive impact on the bottom line. “I think we will see a reversing of some trends,” she says. “There’s no question that when the employer has the upper hand, some of these perks will go away.”

But Allstate’s Zuzith is not so sure, and she points to her company’s experience in explaining why. “We’ve been in this work for the last 10 to 12 years very heavily,” she says. “We were one of the leaders in [achieving] family/work life balance. We really look at it as a business strategy, and I can’t imagine that we would back off of it, because we’ve seen it working.”

K. Daniel Glover has experienced the luxuries of telecommuting, flex time and other family-friendly initiatives in his decade as an editor and reporter. He is currently managing editor of National Journal’s Technology Daily.

Comments are closed.
%d bloggers like this: