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Katherine Lewis

Memo to the Obamas on a Family-Friendly White House

By July 6, 2009

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Barack and Michelle Obama have said work-life balance is a priority for their administration. But a New York Times article this weekend exposed the reality of life for top White House staffers who are also working parents: missed bedtimes, delayed school visits and strained marriages.

I'm sympathetic to the difficulty the White House or any employer faces in providing flexible work hours to senior managers who have high-powered, demanding careers. And the Obama administration is reportedly taking many admirable steps for its workforce, such as inviting children to the White House and allowing flexible schedules and telecommuting.

But when you're leading the country, it's important to lead by example -- to practice what you preach. The Obama administration could become a model of flexibility in a 24-7 world, by taking these steps:

  • Allow job sharing. This innovation has the greatest potential for filling high-intensity jobs -- one half of the job-share team can always be on call without burning out workers.
  • Let work teams sort out their own schedules. Research shows this is the most effective way to ensure responsibilities are covered while empowering employees -- productivity and job satisfaction will both increase.
  • Enforce down time. One of the biggest problems in the upper ranks of the U.S. workforce is the inability to take a true vacation from work. This impairs workers' health, limits innovation and keeps employers' benches very thin.
  • Set healthy boundaries between work and home. It's great that senior staff can take time to chaperone their kids' field trips, but contacting them should be off limits unless it's a true emergency. In this world of Blackberries and iPhones, it's all too easy to call someone for a "quick question" and frivolously interrupt their needed family time.
  • Encourage reduced-hour work weeks. The job of running the country is a big one. The American people deserve to have important decisions made by government officials who are rested and in harmony with their happy homes -- not stressed-out staffers who are working 60 and 70 hour work weeks.

I'm not saying it would be easy to follow these suggestions. But employers in so many arenas -- from corporate America to scientific research facilities and law firms -- claim to be incapable of flexibility because of the unique demands of their field. The White House could prove them wrong by introducing true work-life balance in the country's top jobs, and thereby challenge every workplace to follow suit.

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


July 6, 2009 at 12:32 pm
(1) CV Harquail says:

Katherine, These are great recommendations. Just because jobs in the White House are demanding and require a high level of commitment does not mean that they can’t be designed in a more effective way. No one should be expected to work a 70 hour week, not even Rahm Emanuel.
These issues with White House and other high level govm’t jobs have always existed, becuase the systems were designed that way and because no one has bothered to change them.
Well, guess what Obama White House HR folks… time for some more change!

July 13, 2009 at 5:24 pm
(2) Jen says:

More and more companies are going to realize what the White House already knows – if you want to keep a quality workforce you better be able to offer family-friendly benefits such as job sharing, and flex hours.

July 17, 2009 at 8:17 pm
(3) WhyMommy says:

I sure wish this were possible! My husband and I worked in the federal government for years — everything was great until we couldn’t work 50 hour weeks anymore because we had a newborn. :-( One day, the feds and other employers will figure out that it’s cheaper to retain employees than hire new ones, and a little flexibility goes a long way.

I really enjoyed meeting you the other night at the BlogHerDC meetup — hope to see you again!

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