Striking a Balance 

Step Up Savannah visits the White House to discuss workplace flexibility.

Step Up Savannah, the local organization dedicated to poverty reduction, was asked to join a join a discussion that will help shape workforce policies nationally.

Last week, Dale Carlson–Bebout, the director of Step Up Savannah’s Supporting Work Project, took part in a panel and workshop with the President and First Lady at the White House to discuss workplace flexibility.

The goal of the day–long event was to identify potential issues faced by workers who struggle to balance work obligations with familial responsibility, and then develop policy solutions that could be instituted nationally across several major industries.

We talked with Carlson–Bebout after she returned from the nation’s capitol to find out more about the trip and what it could mean for employees and employers locally and nationally.

What is workplace flexibility?

Dale Carlson–Bebout: Good question. I would say it is options that exist in an effective workplace to enable all employees to balance their commitment to work and their personal lives.

Does that allow employees to focus more on work? From a business standpoint, is there a tie–in to productivity or is this a feel–good initiative?

Dale Carlson–Bebout: I stay away from the feel–good stuff because it really is a business imperative. I think that was the message of this forum, both from the President and First Lady as well as the participants in the panel. In the report [from the Council of Economic Advisors that was issued in conjunction with the panel] there were two statistics that stood out to me.

First of all, as of 2008, 48.3 percent of all parents work. Now, that includes single–parent families and two wage–earner families. That’s compared to 1968, where only 24.6 percent of the workforce was in that same category. That’s an amazing shift. If you put your business hat on, you’ve got a dynamic that you need to deal with that’s huge.

The second piece that I took a note of was 20 percent of people employed, not people with kids, but all employed people, were in some caregiving role for a person over the age of 50 years old. Now you’ve got a real problem for businesses – how to keep people focused on work and how to keep them committed.

What is the effect then of adding more flexibility to employees’ schedules?

Dale Carlson–Bebout: From the business perspective, the Council of Economic Advisors report has a bunch of statistics in there that show sales go up, earnings go up, absenteeism goes down, turnover goes down, and people are more loyal to the company, so when you ask them to do more they are able, because the perception is that you care about what I need to do besides what I’m doing 8–5.

That statement was corroborated by the CEO of Campbell’s Soup, who was part of the first panel. He addressed the issue with some stats from before he introduced options and after. He has seen a decided improvement in the bottom line. People are going to try this because it has a bottom line impact.

How do the ideas that were bounced around on the panel translate for businesses in Savannah?

Dale Carlson–Bebout: We’re trying to share best practices with healthcare, hospitality and manufacturing. We’re doing all businesses, but we’re focusing on those. We can say to a hospital, you have a 24–7 operation, you have clients you have to serve, but here’s a way another hospital has given entry level people some way to have control over their lives, some autonomy. So, within a shift, how does one give autonomy to a worker so that they can get to a school appointment, or they can take grandma to the doctor and still meet the boundaries of the shift? That’s where it gets tougher in the low wage area, but that’s really where the breakthrough is.

It’s the same with hotels, you have a ton of young, single mothers who are working as room attendants. How do you give them some autonomy to take their kid to the doctor and not lose money and still be viewed as a committed employee? It’s all about control of your life within the boundaries of the business needs.

Predictability at the low end is really difficult. I was a single mom for years at Hewlett Packard. I could kind of predict my schedule, but if you’re a shift worker, you might get told “you have to work Tuesday, you have to work Friday.” Well what can you do, as an employer, to give them some autonomy but still meet your needs?

Was this an event that was trying to identify problems like this, or is there also a practical problem solving aspect to this as well? This seems like a conflict that goes back hundreds of years.

Dale Carlson–Bebout: It does. The small breakout sessions were run by high level administration people. For the small business one, the Director of the Small Business Administration was the facilitator. She was chartered with two things.

One, what are the real issues out there, the challenges from keeping businesses from doing this?

And second, what’s working and how do we make that known to people?

One of the challenges here in Savannah as we work through Step Up is how do we get our best practices out there? How do we keep that conversation going? In those sessions, they were very tangible. Here’s what we need to understand, but how do we translate that to policy work?

You don’t want to make a policy for all business — one size doesn’t fit all. How do you give options to businesses that might not be as willing to move forward? How do you mandate some of that through policy without encumbering the business? There were a lot of policy people there as well as business leaders.

For more information on Step Up Savannah, visit www.stepupsavannah.org.



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