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Jul 17, 2013

While on business in San Francisco the last 10 days, I had the opportunity to join discussions about the city’s proposed flexibility ordinance.

When San Francisco Supervisor David Chiu proposed a ballot measure requiring companies to entertain flexible schedule requests from staff, Chamber of Commerce VP Jim Lazarus said two words: “Beyond unbelievable.”

The battle was joined.

Let the lobbying begin

Board of Supervisors President Chiu is a highly capable political leader – and no stranger to conflict. He has taken on quite a few tough issues in his tenure. When he promoted a city-wide ballot measure requiring San Francisco businesses to consider caregiver requests for flexible and predictable schedules, he expected some resistance.

He did not expect 24/7 negotiations for weeks on end with multiple business groups from the Chamber to long-time allies in the restaurant association. And of course he also did a lot of what he expected to do: met with constituents and pro-family groups who spoke of situation after situation in which rigid managers and work schedules made family life painful. They were delighted to see their need for scheduling flexibility and predictability being taken seriously at last.

By the time I met with the Supervisor Chiu at his request, a lot of the rougher edges had been taken off the bill – the appeal of any denial to a city agency and the size of businesses covered shifting from 10 to 20 employees. What was left was the process that hundreds of our clients and other employers nationally have come to accept on a voluntary basis as desirable and workable.

The proposed ballot measure

So at this point, what is being proposed? Asked to testify to the Board’s Rules Committee on our considerable experience in helping companies develop Flexible Work Arrangement request systems, we said:

The essential process we have installed widely is straightforward: an employee uses a standard, simple form to make a request for a flexible schedule. A manager reviews the request and may discuss it and ask for modification. Then that manager makes a final decision. This process is the one being proposed by President Chiu and the co-sponsors of the Family-Friendly Work Ordinance (FFWO.)”

This fairly common procedure itself no longer seems to be the issue. It is the prospect of legislating business procedures at all, let alone in a city-wide referendum, that continues to be debated vigorously as the proposal moves toward a full Board of Supervisors vote in July and the potential November ballot.

Putting the urge to legislate in context

TLNT readers will surely have opinions on these questions and make up their own minds about what should happen. I think it might be useful to share some of the forces we observed at work in San Francisco this week and what they say about the trajectory of flexibility where we live.

Among the things I found were:

  • Impatience is growing. I started my flexibility advocacy work with New Ways to Work in San Francisco in 1986. Yes, that’s 27 years ago. As I discussed the viability of the flex request process during this visit, the fear that “everyone will want it,” the concern that managers will be overwhelmed with paperwork, I looked back over almost three decades and reached a conclusion.

We have been in a long national pilot project to determine if different ways of working are viable. Part-time, compressed schedules, telecommuting and the rest work. Like any initiative, well-designed and well-managed, they work well. Period.

Many people who don’t yet have the flexibility they need feel like it is time to declare the pilot over. Workplace flexibility is, and should be a fact of life. Apparently, SF leaders think that if ballots give voice, a little nudge can’t hurt.

  • We already do this” has worn thin. The most common argument against formal, mandated flexibility I heard was that every business owner believes they are already plenty flexible informally. Why legislate a solution when there is no problem?

There has always been informal flexibility;  it is often called “accommodation.” It may be limited to certain people or levels, it may be tentative and is often modest. It is fine and should continue.

But a formal process helps level the playing field, expanding options, encouraging fearful applicants and offering stability. And just as most of us may be a little less good-looking, brilliant or charming than we think, in our experience most organizations are a little less flexible than they think.

  • There is a preference for voluntary action. I do not speak for Supervisor Chiu. But I can say that no one we spoke with or heard testify was dying to see legislation. People responded well to our description of large employers such as Sodexo, Memorial Sloan-Kettering, Colgate and many, many others offering the opportunity to propose creative, mutually beneficial schedule changes to hundreds of thousands of their employees.

If companies simply adopted these simple, proven, non-disruptive measures, there would be no need to consider requiring a measure such as San Francisco’s. It would not be hard to get ahead of this legislative curve.

Time for action has come – one way or another

Ever since the United Kingdom, Australia and other countries adopted similar national legislation, I have not been a big fan. I believe that:

  • Flexible schedules should be open to all, not just caregivers.
  • They should be business and employee-beneficial, not a flat benefit offering.
  • They should drive a creative work redesign process, not be a frozen menu.

I believe companies can and should move in this direction – and do so deliberately and comprehensively. If they fail to do so, if they think this modest ballot proposition is “beyond unbelievable,” I think they may find that the position of doing little or nothing is unsustainable.

While San Francisco wrestles with this issue and may vote on it in November, the rest of the country might do well to tackle the substance and make further legislation unnecessary.