Guest Op-Ed: Families and flexibility in the 21st century workplace

September 3, 2014 Scott M. Stringer
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Even as Americans danced to “9 to 5,” the “traditional” family unit of the mid-20th century that the song describes—a male breadwinner and a female housekeeper and caretaker—had begun to give way to a new model, in which dual-earner families were becoming the norm.

Today, mothers are the primary or co-breadwinners in almost two-thirds of American families and one in five workers provides some form of elder care, a number that is expected to rise as Baby Boomers age.

However, many of our workplaces remain attached to inflexible work rules that adhere to the “9 to 5” workday. As a result, nearly 75 percent of employees—women and men—report not having enough time to spend with their children, while millions more struggle to integrate their personal lives with their professional responsibilities.

New York should be a leader in creating the workplace of the 21st century by supporting flexible work arrangements (FWAs), which allow employees to work hours outside the traditional 9 to 5 schedule and in locations outside their workstation, including by taking advantage of telecommuting technology.

FWAs not only improve morale, but also improve productivity and increase employee retention.

Deloitte, the global consulting and accounting firm, reported that its flex policies save more than $45 million a year, largely by reducing turnover. And Aetna, one of America’s largest health insurers, has saved $78 million in real estate costs alone by boosting its share of telecommuting workers to 47 percent in 2012, up from nine percent in 2005.

Nevertheless, despite the clear benefits of flexible work arrangements, FWAs remain far too rare in American workplaces.

It shouldn’t be this way—not if we want our economy to be as competitive in the Millennial era as it was in the Mad Men era. While the private sector must play a leading role in creating tomorrow’s workplace, government also has a critical role to play.

Comptroller Stringer’s office recently issued a report on flexible work arrangements that provides series of “best practices” for employers and employees and calls on federal, state, and local governments to consider “right to request” legislation, like the bill sponsored by Assemblymember Rozic.

This legislation would not guarantee a right to flexible work, but would instead create a process for negotiation between employees and employers.

While New York has been ahead of the curve in advocating for certain family-friendly employment practices, it has not taken any concrete steps to boost flexible scheduling. Right to request legislation would make the Empire State a national leader in workplace flexibility, further boosting our reputation as a fertile ground for businesses and families.

By creating a framework for discussions between employers and employees, businesses big and small will be spurred to consider flexible work arrangements. It is an idea whose time has come.

Scott M. Stringer is New York City Comptroller. Nily Rozic represents the 25th Assembly District.

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