Is there hope for corporate work life reform? Dispatch from Work Life Focus Conference

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I spent  three days in Washington DC last week, two blocks from the White House, at the Work-Life Focus: 2012 and Beyond Conference, put on by the Society for Human Resource Management, and the Families and Work Institute.

In attendance were many human resource professionals who spend their time trying to find ways to make their companies more supportive of work flexibility.

We talked about how work flexibility programs have grown from being viewed as mostly a “woman thing” to a core competitive advantage for attracting and retaining great talent in the new world of work.

We talked about how men are increasingly vocal about wanting more work flexibility so they can spend more time with their families.

We analyzed data from in-depth studies about attitudes about flexibility in different regions of the world like India, China and Brazil.

And we listened to winners of the Sloan Awards, ten companies recognized by the Families and Work Institute as outstanding examples of integrating work flexibility into their companies.

I met representatives from the Prime Minister’s office in Singapore, who told me that quality of life was rated the number one issue in the country by its citizens, ahead of economic growth. Singapore earned the number one spot of total hours worked per year by the average worker, ahead of every other country in the world. It was fascinating talking with them about the tension between maintaining a strong focus on the economy, while addressing a strong societal need to address the human side of business.

And speaking of balance, it was wonderful to find many personal connections, like two of us who had sons obsessed by World War II and Egypt. 🙂

Tina Tchen, Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls and Michelle Obama’s Chief of Staff talked about work life initiatives within the White House. She talked about growing up as a single mom and juggling her duties as a lawyer in a major law firm with after school meetings, sports practices and parent-teacher conferences.

On a national level, the White House is discussing concepts like Results Only Work Environment or ROWE, popularized by Cali Ressler and Jodi Thompson in their ground breaking book Why Work Sucks and How to Fix it.

In my own work at Escape from Cubicle Nation for the past six years, quality of life and work/life flexibility is a huge driver for my clients. Not every person that crosses my path has the true desire to start a business — but most have a crushing desire to have more control over their work life, and integration between family and work time.

Because it was not my normal type of conference, I got some very strange looks when I would introduce myself as the “writer and business coach from Escape from Cubicle Nation,” covering the conference.

“Um, interesting!” they would say as they tucked my card in their bag, scanning the room for someone to talk to who was not a subversive rebel.

I think the discomfort is based on the old world of work where there is a hard line between corporate employment and entrepreneurship. When you leave the confines of a job, it was viewed as “disloyal” to the company you worked for.

And now?

We are one economy.

We need to work on all sides of the employment table — corporate, non-profit, military, small business and freelance — to serve the needs of the workforce of the 21st century.

Smart, productive workers who leave a large corporation to start their own business creative innovative products and services. They embrace technology and lead new trends. They generate value, and hire workers, and create opportunity.

And when they choose to go back into corporate life, as many of them will do, they will bring tremendous perspective and skills.

Veterans returning from war, discouraged by lack of full-time jobs, could learn ways to start their own business.

I was encouraged by what I saw at the conference, and am inspired to join the larger dialogues about the changing nature of commitment in the new world of work. I want to speak to rooms like I saw at the Work Life Focus conference to share stories of six years of working with people leaving the corporate life. Far from being a wolf in sheep’s clothing, I could offer insight and perspective for those human resource professionals who want to better serve the needs of their employees.

Working for yourself is no walk in the park. It can be unpredictable and stressful. There are no departments to call if your computer freezes, or special benefits to cover you when you get sick. There is no supply room stocked with fresh post-it notes and number two pencils. For some people, finding meaningful employment inside a company would be a better solution than striking out on their own.

What is your perspective? For those of you who did leave, what advice would you give to human resource professionals who want to increase work flexibility? If you had been given more, would that have impacted your decision to leave?

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10 Responses to “Is there hope for corporate work life reform? Dispatch from Work Life Focus Conference”

  1. Erin and Barbara bring up good points. I’ll go further and add that as a single person, my experience was that it meant filling in for an employee with children. I was expected to fill in at a moment’s notice. Stuff happens and I understood that. However, it became obvious this flexibility wasn’t extended to me as a single person if I had an extenuating circumstance or outside commitment. Having no children or spouse meant I belonged to the company, period.
    (This has happened in more than one company and not in the “distant past”.)
    There has to be a way to create a workplace that flows with whatever life choices employees make.

  2. Pat Katepoo says:

    Hi Pam, I was surprised AND delighted to hear you attended the Work-Life Focus Conference. Job flexibility is the #1 driver of retention (according to; HR experts need to be aware of that. But as you know, I advise people not to wait for their employer to come around; individuals can take initiative to ASK for the flexible work arrangement they want NOW. Many who have done that become pave the way for their coworkers.

  3. Someday, someone will write a widely-accepted report showing how a good personal life translates into higher productivity, higher loyalty and higher profits. That will help some of our larger and most resistant corporations adopt policies that will help them thrive in the 20teens. Work does not end at 5:00 PM and the personal life does not end at 9:00 AM. Rather, it is an intermingling between work and personal life that envelops our lives.

  4. Judy Martin says:

    Hi Pam,

    So sorry to have missed you there! Your work has inspired me since the day I took your workshop a few years back. I think what’s needed is more media on the role models and work models that already exist not only in the corporate arena but for those of us who walk in between the worlds of corporate and entrepreneurship. Your bank of stories are extremely useful and inspirational.

    The work-life merge is about a new way of working. I agree – we are truly one economy. My corporate job allows a degree of flex, but I think working in media is a different animal.

    Corporate America needs to better understand how much more productive, creative and innovative the workforce would be if workplace flexibility was the norm. Better engaged employees would be the result.

  5. Mel Corrigan says:


    I still reside in cubicle nation, and reside on the fence (do I stay or do I go). The thing that is keeping me there is the flexibility I have been offered since having a child. My manager is immensely supportive – I worked an informal 4 day per week schedule for about 6 months after returning to work. Then a 5 day per week yet flexible schedule (come in late at times, leave early – work from home when I needed to, etc.).

    I have been ill for a few weeks and my manager supports my working from home until I am well, and adjusted my responsibilities in the meantime.

    I will work a 60% schedule in 2012 – I’ll work 3 days per week (and be compensated accordingly), and we are still ironing out the details of my role – it will be some combination of product work (which I currently do) and technical process/course/development type of work (which I am OK with, if it’s only a fraction of my role).

    The point I wish to make here is that having a good, supportive manager who enables flexibility is THE sticking point for me. If I were to be moved to another group or should end up with a new manager, my spark for escaping would almost surely be rekindled. For now, I’m taking it one day at a time.

  6. Erin says:

    I never had any plans to leave corporate America until I had a child and found out how difficult is is to work full-time and have a young child. The biggest problem I had is that young children in daycare centers get sick *a lot*. The frequency is really unbelievable – we had a wonderful daycare center that was actually on-site at my company, but there’s just no avoiding all those germs from so many kids being in the same building. On top of which, my daughter has asthma so what started as a cold turned into bronchitis or pneumonia more than once. Every time I had to stay home from work with a sick kid, even though I got my work done, my managers were decidedly not pleased. And they didn’t even know about all the times my husband stayed home instead of me.

    Most companies still have a huge emphasis on face-time and everyone working exactly the same hours. I agree that it’s not always optimal to have someone work 100% remotely, because there are great benefits to in-person interaction. But for most salaried, white-collar, information-based positions there’s no reason people shouldn’t be evaluated on their results rather than butt-in-the-office chair time, and be able to work at least 1-2 days a week from home, or work in the evenings from home if they have to leave the office during the day.

    It’s also worth mentioning this isn’t just a problem for people with kids. So many people with elderly parents are facing similar problems. For several years my mother had to spend a great deal of time dealing with my grandmother’s health problems and encroaching dementia, which involved doctor’s appointment and meetings with medical staff, administrators and social workers at hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities. Luckily she had a boss who was very understanding – I’m sure other people in similar situations have been at risk of losing their jobs.

    I also believe that since the economy went bad and it became much more difficult for people to leave for other jobs, many companies have stopped paying much attention to work-life balance issues. I’ve seen concrete examples of this at my husband’s company.

    • Erin, you write.

      >It’s also worth mentioning this isn’t just a problem for people with kids.

      This is also a problem for single people. First it creates a state serious isolation. If you live in a family, you leave work and go home to the people you care about. You wake up with the people you love. If you’re single, after work and a long commute, you go home to no one.

      This also costs money. For example, I have a dog. If I had a teenager, the teenager could walk the dog. As it is, I have to pay someone to care for the dog when I have long hours.

      I’m certainly not downplaying or competing with people who have family responsibilities. Just pointing out that there really is no circumstance that allows a person to have a life if work and commuting are too consuming.

  7. Is there hope for corporate work/life reform?
    I sincerely hope so.
    I see so many managers working themselves sick, literally.
    I want it to stop and yet I agree with you Pam that entrepreneurship and leaving the corporate world isn’t the answer for everyone.
    I am committed to helping people who also want it to stop, to find ways of doing that.
    I haven’t yet met anyone who knows how to do it differently and so we need to build and sculpt and craft a new way that suits us now, as we are, in these circumstances that we’ve (our generation) never had to operate in before.
    I’m fairly confident though, that if there is the desire and intention to do things differently, then we’ll get there.
    That’s where I’m putting my faith anyway.

  8. Pam, I can’t even begin to tell you how completely and totally excited that this took place last week and that you were a part of it. As someone who raised my kids and managed a career for 17 (out of 23) years as a single parent and almost having near breakdowns at times because I was trying to be everything to everyone, I’m ecstatic that this movement is taking place…and I love Michelle Obama, by the way. I’m thrilled to hear also that men are voicing their concerns as well. In hindsight, there are things that I would have done so different if I had more flexibility. No one should have to suffer in silence and I’m sure I am not the only single mom that had to do it all. THANK YOU!!!!!

  9. In my opinion, the difficult part of the equation is the shift in relationships and identity that flexibility brings. Even parent-child relationships have become significantly less authoritarian over the last 25 years. With the notable exception of ROWE, corporate flexibility programs still tend to include the idea of permission. Permission from the company to choose between schedules they design. Permission from your manager to telecommute three days a week. Perhaps that didn’t feel like indignity half a century ago. Now it does.

    The flip side: This permission-giving itself is one of the conventional signs of stature. To take that power from managers is to take away a major psychological reward of their jobs.

    Honestly I believe the shift is as radical as the (recent) determination that you have no right rape your wife because she is fundamentally not your property.