Making Room For Family While You're Still At Work The Federal Government Shows How To Create "Family-friendly Workplaces."

Posted: November 08, 1994

WASHINGTON — Picture a company where some employees work at home, others spend their lunch hours in an elder-care support group, and still others arrange work schedules around their children's schooling or health needs.

Now, think of the Pentagon. Or the Treasury Department. Or the Department of Transportation. If the images don't mesh, it's understandable.

The federal government, America's largest employer - with more than 2.1 million workers - is not the most likely model of workplace supportiveness. Yet the feds may be leaving most American companies in the dust in their efforts to achieve a more humane, family-oriented workplace.

Vice President Gore recently announced a Jan. 15 deadline to the federal Office of Personnel Management for developing "family-friendly workplace" policies in every branch of government.

By mandating flexible workplace policies and support systems for all federal employees, the government hopes to show private companies that the bottom line gets bigger when you help workers balance their lives and manage their family stresses.

"The old rules about productivity apply to a workplace that doesn't exist anymore," said Jayne L. Seidman, head of OPM's Work and Family Program Center. "There's no one at home to take care of the kids and run the house and handle the crises anymore. Adjusting the rules is not optional anymore, it's necessary for survival."

Consider the case of Brad Woutring, who in May was faced with a difficult choice: keeping his job or helping his elderly parents during a health crisis.

For 12 years, the 38-year-old financial analyst with the General Services Administration had commuted 45 minutes from his home in Vienna, Va., to his office across the Potomac from Washington. But after his father had a series of heart attacks, Woutring and his wife moved to his parents' farm in Capon Bridge, W.Va.

"I'm an only child, and there was no one else to take care of them," Woutring explained. His new, punishing commute began at 3:45 a.m., when he drove from his home to Winchester, Va., and then joined a van pool for the two-hour drive to work.

So when his office started a pilot telecommuting program last summer, Woutring eagerly signed up. Now, three days a week, Woutring drives to the Shenandoah Valley Telecommuting Center in Winchester - a mere 45 minutes away. The satellite office, used by employees from seven federal agencies, contains 25 work stations with computers to link workers to their D.C. offices.

"The pure change of environment is invigorating," says Woutring, who finds he can concentrate more on his work without routine interruptions. ''You're not bothered with people coming up to your desk, or you're not putting out fires all day."

Woutring's experience may become more typical. Among baby boomers in the workplace, the two main stresses are caring for children or for elderly parents. Some employees must handle both at the same time - the so-called ''Sandwich Generation" squeeze.

In a 1992 survey, OPM found that 35 percent of the federal workforce had child-care or elder-care needs. An additional 13 percent said they'd probably have elder-care needs by 1997.

"The more we looked into it, the more we realized we were sitting on a ticking time bomb," Seidman said. "Departments were going to get hit with these huge numbers of people needing services and help with their elder-care issues, and most managers didn't have a clue about how to prepare."

OPM's family-friendly policy is deceptively simple. While managers can't prevent employee family crises, they can minimize impact on productivity by giving employees the tools to manage stress better.

Options include working at home (flexiplace), working at an office established close to home (telecommuting), part-time hours, job sharing, and flexible hours. A March 1993 survey by the General Accounting Office reported that 52 percent of federal employees took advantage of some type of flexible work schedule.

OPM staffers admit that all jobs aren't suited to some of these alternative schedules. But associate director Barbara Fiss says that because computers are so much a part of the modern office, flexibility in location is inevitable.

To what extent will private industry follow the government's example? William Dennis, senior research fellow at the National Federation of Independent Business, has his doubts.

"Technology will have an impact on office settings, but there will still be an awful lot of contact industries, like retail and transport services, where people won't be able to phone in their work," Dennis said.

Dennis also said that many small businesses simply can't be as flexible as the federal government because of "an economy of scale."

"The federal government can offer these programs because it's so huge and has many resources," he said. "Small businesses just can't, and that's why they don't."

In either arena, women must be particularly careful when rearranging their work schedules, said Ellen Bravo, director of the Milwaukee-based 9to5, a national working women's advocacy group. "What happens to your career when you sign up for job-sharing or telecommuting?" asks Bravo.

"Are you looked at as less of a team player? It could be convenient for now, but if it scuttles your career, you should think twice."

Even OPM staffers admit it's not a breeze. For example, Fiss says it's hard to develop a uniform policy to fit all departments, given the varying duties they perform and the huge territory that government covers.

Also, the child-care issue remains thorny. The expense of setting up child- care centers often outweighs the returns because many people would rather leave their children with relatives or in neighborhood settings.

Still, government officials hope that private-sector employees will watch, learn and agitate.

"We want to be an example for companies nationwide," said OPM's Seidman. ''But this kind of action has to come not only from the top down but the bottom up. Workers have to speak up and ask about these programs, and show employers the bottom-line benefits."

For his part, Woutring is sold on the idea.

"Some people aren't self-motivated, and they're going to need the guidance and supervision they get from an office setting," he says. "But for someone like me, who can do all of my work by computer and phone, this is a wonderful arrangement. It helped give me peace of mind about helping my family and keeping my career."

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