White House Advisor: Workplace Flexibility 'Will Keep America Competitive'

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A top-level advisor to President Barack Obama advised Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) members at the 2011 SHRM Employment Law & Legislative Conference to encourage workplace flexibility and to select employees who have a life outside the office.

Valerie B. Jarrett, senior advisor and assistant to Obama for intergovernmental affairs and public engagement, was a keynote speaker during lunch at the SHRM conference in Washington, D.C., on March 15, 2011.

“Improving workplace flexibility will keep America competitive in the 21st century,” she said.

Jarrett, who served on corporate and not-for-profit boards in Chicago, remembered how she felt when she first returned to work after maternity leave.

“Sitting in my office in the Sears Tower, I was absolutely miserable,” Jarrett said. “I needed more balance to be a good mom and also to be a strong contributor to my clients.”

She decided then on a career in public service, holding several positions in Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration. As a working mother, Jarrett found herself juggling a government career while raising her daughter Laura.

“It is impossible to be productive at work when you worry about child care,” Jarrett said. “Flexibility not only made me a good mom but a far better employee.”

Perhaps the best advice about how to balance work and family, Jarrett said, came from Chicago’s first lady, Maggie Daley. “The mayor doesn’t work on Sunday,” Jarrett recalled Daley saying. “Therefore, I made it my policy to make room for precious time with my daughter on Sundays.”

Strength in Flexibility

Jarrett noted that American society has changed over the past half century because more women are in the workforce.

To commemorate Women’s History Month, the Obama administration released a report entitled Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being on March 1, 2011.

The findings in the report about women’s employment over the past 50 years include:

  • Women now comprise nearly one-half of the labor force.
  • Children are increasingly raised in households in which both parents work.
  • Female-headed families have the lowest family earnings among family types.
  • In families where the husband and wife are employed, employed wives spend more time in household activities.

Increasingly, American workers need to balance employment with other responsibilities, but to what extent does the modern-day workplace accommodate these needs? According to a survey report authored by Jarrett, if all U.S. firms adopted flexible work schedules, they would save a collective $15 billion or more each year.

Companies that value flexibility in the workplace, Jarrett said, include accounting firms Ernst & Young, Deloitte and PricewaterhouseCoopers and corporations such as Campbell Soup Co., among others.

Improving Workers’ Productivity

The Obama administration has proposed policies on workplace flexibility to improve the productivity of America’s workers, Jarrett added. She said the health care reform law permits new mothers to express breast milk at the office for a year after birth.

In December 2010, Obama signed the Telework Enhancement Act, which allows federal government employees to telecommute. The law provides federal agencies greater flexibility in the workforce, Jarrett added.

“This now gives parents piece of mind during a workday if they need to stay home and take care of a sick child,” Jarrett said.

Obama proposed legislation in December 2010 to help middle-class families pay for child care by allowing families with an income up to $75,000 to receive tax credits, Jarrett said.

Adventures with Babysitters

Jarrett shared an anecdote with SHRM members about first lady Michelle Obama while they were both climbing the career ladder in Chicago. Obama was en route to a job interview when her babysitter for daughter Sasha canceled at the last minute. Obama called Jarrett to tell her she was bringing Sasha with her to the interview.

“If it’s [that Sasha is at the interview] a problem for the company, then this is not the job for me,” Jarrett recalled Obama saying.

Even with Sasha in tow, Obama did get the job, Jarrett said.

“I look forward to the day when workplace flexibility is the rule rather than the exception,” Jarrett concluded.

Catherine Skrzypinski is an online writer/editor for SHRM.