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Flex It

Making work work

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"Work is not where you are, it's what you do," said Patricia Kempthorne, former first lady of Idaho and founder and executive director of the Twiga Foundation, a Boise-based nonprofit that promotes workplace flexibility.

"[Workplace flexibility is] so important because of the way we work now in the 21st century," she said. "We are such a 24/7 global economy, plus, there's a real awareness of family."

According to Kempthorne, a confluence of forces--political, demographic and technological--is driving a trend toward a world of wireless work. It's been happening for a long time, aided by the ubiquity of cell phones and wireless Internet, but a rising generation of tech-savvy workers, the need for elder care and more families with two working adults means workers are demanding more flexibility.

"More and more employers are discovering that loosening the traditionally rigid work schedule pays off," said Sandy Colling, director of sales and support with Boise-based Business Psychology Associates. "Studies show retention increases and study after study shows productivity also shoots up. More than half of companies now say they offer flextime, and one-third allow telecommuting at least part-time."

The change in workplace culture is also gaining political support--including from the president of the United States.

President Barack Obama hosted a White House forum on workplace flexibility in late March, when he brought together business leaders to focus on policies that help employees maintain a healthy work/life balance--from flexible hours and in-office child care, to sabbaticals and job sharing.

Kempthorne's group, Twiga--Swahili for "giraffe," a gentle family devoted animal--is geared toward improving the work/life balance of working moms, but as Obama said at the forum, "Workplace flexibility isn't just a women's issue ... It's an issue that affects the well-being of our families and the success of our businesses."

Kempthorne agrees. "As we've seen in the recent research, women make up half of the work force, but what that has really shown us is that both men and women are looking for flexibility because there's a much greater sharing of responsibility, both as the provider and the caregiver," she said.

And it turns out Boise is a community in the lead on workforce flexibility. Eight local businesses and organizations were awarded 2009 Alfred P. Sloan Awards for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility, and the national awards presentation was hosted by the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Given out by the Families and Work Institute, which Twiga partners with, the awards are about best practices that help enhance recruitment, retention, health and productivity.

Among Boise's Sloan award winners is the law firm Givens-Pursley. Human Resources Director Robin Scruton said the company's policies include flextime, child care and a host of health and wellness programs.

"It's made us happier and healthier--more productive and efficient," she said.

Scruton added that while flexible work programs have always been a priority for Givens-Pursley, there's definitely been an increase over the last five years.

"This is a whole different generation coming up right now, and we try to recognize that. We also have a lot of working mothers," she said. "We have a culture of being very family minded, and we take what we do very, very seriously. It's a very stressful job practicing law, and we want to help people have a good, happy life doing it."

Audit, tax and financial advisory firm KPMG is another Sloan award winner. Mike Alva, associate director of KPMG's West Internal and External Communications, said 81 percent of employees who said they have flexibility at work also said KPMG was "a great place to work."

"It's about establishing a culture where people feel they have control over when, where and how they work," Alva said.

But even with benefits measured in higher retention, better health, improved productivity and happier workers, workplace flexibility can be challenging to institute.

"I would say trust is a barrier--employers have to trust their employees that when they're working from home, they're actually working," Kempthorne said. "Then there's the 'we've done it this way for years' factor, and businesses often think flexibility is going to cost them somehow. It won't. It's really just the perception of cost."

"We've kind of done away with that whole stereotype that to get ahead in your life you've got to go full-out, nose-to-the-grindstone," Scruton said. "What's more important is what can we do to help our employees be whole people?"

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