Our Professional Lives Are a Little Slower to Similarly Evolve and Align

by Allison O’Kelly, CEO of Mom Corps

The age of “one size fits all” is now but a chapter in the history books. Today’s world has adapted to align to the needs of the individual. We have access to 24-hour fitness centers, flexible educations and on-demand entertainment. The progression of market demand and available technology has provided consumers with choices that fit a customized lifestyle.

So where does the modern workplace fall into the customization spectrum? It lags a bit.

Understandably, a company is not an individual; professionals work collectively for a greater good. But adapting flexibility and aligning life and work for the betterment of all involved transcends simply addressing personal preference. Here we look at workplace evolution, a comparative example of flexibility, and ideas for building flexibility with impact.

A Historical Perspective

Graduate college, get a job, go to work Monday-Friday, climb the corporate ladder and mark out a good career. Family? That’s another conversation entirely. Isn’t this what we know to be “life as a grown-up”? For some of us older folks maybe it was once, but everything else around us is adapting quickly to a different lifestyle.

Andrew Ross, a professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, was interviewed by PRI (Public Radio International) and summed up today’s workplace from an interesting historical perspective. When asked what is driving workplace changes, he replied:

It’s pretty obvious that for the last two or three decades the result has been a redistribution of wealth upwards and an erosion of the middle class. The middle class is largely built on the basis of these fairly secure livelihoods—high wage, union wage employment in the post war period—and that highly packaged economic arrangement seems to have been eroded quite drastically in the course of the last three decades. The definition of a job is slowly reverting to its original etymological derivation which was a lump of work that exists only for the duration of its fulfillment. The historical norm has been self-employment, intermittent work and isolation from any type of social insurance of the sort that we were familiar with in the post war period.

Evolution—even when it comes to workplace practices—just makes sense.

Business Innovators Evolve

While it’s apparent that employees appreciate access to flexible work options, it’s important to consider the impact of flexibility on the employer. What is the motivator for an employer to make provisions that create a better lifestyle for the employee? Employers ultimately benefit when they start seeing the employer/employee relationship as symbiotic. They cannot prop themselves up on a pedestal as economic heroes without addressing the needs of their largest asset—human capital. Our world of endless options has evolved because innovators saw an opportunity to expand their market.

Here’s a comparative example of business evolution. Owning a vacation home was once available only to the exceedingly wealthy. Business innovators embraced the concept of fractional ownership, where a group of individuals share the purchase price and usage of a luxury asset. This concept expanded the market opportunity and increased sales for these particular items.

Likewise, workplace innovators created the job share solution as a way to attract a new audience. Many skilled professionals were unable or unwilling to commit to a 40-hour week due to life changes and personal preferences. This limited the market of available talent for positions requiring specific skill sets and experience. Dividing “ownership” of the job created flexible work for a growing talent segment and gave companies access to workers who might otherwise be unavailable.

Forging a New Path

An evolved workplace can take on almost endless forms. Study those who have implemented successful programs and learn from what worked best. Organizations like the Family and Work Institute (www.whenworkworks.org) share a variety of rigorous research and employer best practices on workplace effectiveness and flexibility.

Don’t make assumptions about which flexible options will make a difference for employees. Whether through a formal company-wide survey or asking each employee individually, uncover the pain points across the organization on a macro level, and by department or location on a more micro level. This data will help pinpoint the programs that are both achievable and impactful.

Modern life has produced flexible options that allow us to spend time in ways that best fit our lives at the moment. When aspects of our professional lives mirror this, we are better at work, too. Employers may be apprehensive about the idea of implementing and managing flexible schedules, teleworking or alternative work methodologies—this is understandable. We are talking pretty significant social change here. It will require an investment of time and resources to eventually see a measurable return, but small and steady efforts will create a new social norm of workplace flexibility that will make a measurable impact on society.

2012 Pennsylvania Conference for Women speaker Allison O’Kelly is founder/CEO of Mom Corps, a national flexible staffing firm dedicated to connecting progressive employers with professionals seeking flexible work options. Visit www.momcorps.com for more information.