This week,  the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation hosted a 2-day conference as part of their National Workplace Flexibility Initiative . The presentations ranged from the role of workplace flexibility in families, over phased retirement options, and attracting women to science fields, to options for military personnel.  The Sloan Foundation seeks to increase awareness of the benefits of flexible work arrangements in an effort to increase their availability.

It is well understood  that flexible work arrangements are important for many women who seek to combine family and career.  However, flexibility is becoming increasingly important for workers across the board, and especially for baby-boomers. More needs to be done still in both the private and public sector to implement workplace flexibility more broadly,  and the benefits suggest the efforts are well worth it. Less than 30% of private sector and government employees are currently able to take advantage of flexible work options.

The government is the largest employer in many states, and the federal government is the largest employer in the U.S. Examining how state governments and localities fare at implementing workplace flexibility was the purpose of a presentation given at the New America Foundation on workplace flexibility in state governments. Here is a quick summary of what I learned.

Against the backdrop of budget shortfalls in recent years, and the need for states and localities to recruit and retain talent, the Arizona State University Work-Life Policy Unit prepared a study on The Legal Framework of States as Employers-of-Choice, which discusses the experiences of Arizona and Michigan as model case studies for workplace flexibility.

The study highlights that workplace flexibility can serve as a recruiting incentive for younger workers, and especially for female workers who make up a majority of the governments’ workforce. It also helps with retaining talent by increasing job satisfaction and by enabling employees to strike a better work-life balance, which has shown to improve morale, health and welfare. As the baby-boomer generation ages, flexible options can help states take advantage of the knowledge and experience of older workers who want to continue working, given more flexible work arrangements.

Moreover, workplace flexibility helps alleviate traffic congestion, reduces carbon emissions, and has shown to increase productivity and reduce leave time. States are trying to manage various pressures at the moment and workplace flexibility options can help them cope with some of these.

Another important insight from the study is that, as is true in many cases, a federal one-size-fits-all approach wouldn’t work as well as local initiatives which take into consideration the particular circumstances of certain agencies’ activities and the preferences of the relevant workforce. Leadership and collaboration by governors, agency heads, managers, unions, and workers is key to designing successful workplace flexibility options in states and localities.

While a general optimism permeated the discussion, the absence of invited state leaders who would have benefited most from the presentation makes me question to what extent other states are prepared to adopt the lessons of Arizona and Michigan.  Unfortunately, the audience consisted almost exclusively of non-profit representatives and other researchers. The key state leaders who would have benefited most from the message didn’t show.   I wonder to what extent government inertia (unwillingness to change) is responsible for their absence.

I applaud the researchers for highlighting the importance of increasing the availability of flexible work arrangements for state workers, and especially their insight that a bottom-up approach that takes advantage of trial and error, and that integrates the diverse interests of the various players, is key to implementing successful strategies.