Workplace Flexibility: A Solution for a Time-Starved Nation?

As indicated in the new Work and Family volume of Future of Children, American society’s composition and family roles have changed dramatically since Leave It to Beaver, with the majority of American women employed outside the home, an explosion of single-parent families, and older Americans increasingly needing care from younger relatives. These changes greatly complicate the challenges of meeting family responsibilities while holding down a job, note journal editors Sara McLanahan of Princeton, Jane Waldfogel of Columbia, and Brookings senior fellow Ron Haskins.

As demographics have changed, so have workplaces, which may have negative consequences for children and families. Today, one out of five employed Americans works varying hours or works outside the standard hours of 8 to 4 more than half the time. Parents who work nonstandard hours spend less time with each other and with their children. Moreover, mothers’ nonstandard hours are linked to lower cognitive scores among preschoolers.

Increasing workplace flexibility – the availability of work schedules that allow for balance between family and work – is one logical solution that employers can voluntarily implement to ease work-family tensions. Although some research has suggested that this may still impact parents’ career growth, evidence of the benefits continues to mount. Researchers find that greater access to flexibility is linked to higher job satisfaction, engagement, and employee health. One example underscored by Work and Family is a Houston, Texas community effort. Through the promotion of workplace flexibility, the city reduced traffic congestion, lessened pollution, and helped employers increase productivity.

The best workers may be attracted to family-friendly workplaces, and often that provides an incentive for change. For example, The White House and National Science Foundation (NSF) recently announced the “NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative,” a ten-year plan to support American scientists and their families. New workplace flexibility policies will allow researchers to postpone or suspend grants for up to one year for parental leave, childbirth, and adoption. The new policies will make it easier for women to pursue careers in engineering and science. NSF plans to support research on workplace flexibility policies and calls on other research institutes and universities to adopt similar policies.