Friday, February 3, 2012

The Work-Life Movement and its Place at URI- Part 2

Barbara Silver, Ph.D.
Assistant Research Professor
Research Coordinator
Part 2.  Work-Life Initiatives Across the Country and Here at URI
Demographic shifts have re-shaped the American workforce. Increasingly, the intersection of work, family, and life responsibilities provides challenges for the majority of workers.  Workplaces across the country are responding.  This series will cover:  Part 1.  What Workers Need Today: Addressing the Workplace-Workforce Mismatch; Part 2.  Work-Life Initiatives Across the Country and Here at URI; and Part 3.  Workplace Flexibility Close-Up:  How One URI Office is Making it Work

National Work-Life Efforts are Vigorous and Increasing

Alternative work schedules, compressed work weeks, paid leave, child/elder care services and subsidies, telecommuting, creative phased retirement plans, on-ramps and off-ramps for those negotiating career changes, job sharing, cross training, lactation rooms, part-time options, tenure clock extensions, and other solutions are becoming mainstream options rather than exceptions.  University, as well as corporate, human resource divisions nationwide are creating work-life specialist positions, offices and programs to develop flexibility options and other benefits to meet the work-life needs of their employees. Increasingly, prospective employees rank work-life balance as a high priority and are seeking workplaces that offer work-life supports.

In March 2010, the President’s Council of Economic Advisors published a report on the economic benefits of workplace flexibility, and the President hosted a White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility.1 The Department of Labor led subsequent efforts around the country to promote workplace flexibility and generate best practices in the private sector. Telework mandates for federal employees, for example, have significantly increased in the last two years.  In September 2011, the National Science Foundation launched a 10-year Career-Life Balance Initiative to promote greater workplace flexibility for its own employees, for men and women grantees in research careers, and within the institutions they fund.2  In response to the NSF initiative, the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public Land-grant Universities have partnered with NSF to support and promote flexible work and learning environments at the nation’s universities.

Organizations promoting the work-life agenda abound.  These include the Families & Work Institute, Boston College Center for Work and Family, Corporate Voices for Working Families, Alliance for Work-Life Progress, the Sloan Work and Family Research Network, Work, Family, and Health Network, When Work Works, and Georgetown Law’s Workplace Flexibility 2010 Initiative.  The National Clearinghouse on Academic Worklife specifically provides information for faculty and higher education administrators.  The College and University Work & Family Association (CUWFA) provides leadership in facilitating the integration of work and study with family/personal life at institutions of higher learning.   The University of Rhode Island is a member institution.

Regional University Efforts

These efforts include the University of New Hampshire, which has recently been awarded a 2011 Sloan Foundation Award for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility.  Said Dick Cannon, Vice President for Administration and Finance at UNH, “Employers that provide flexibility to their employees, with regard to where and how their work gets done, gain a tremendous financial benefit and competitive advantage in today’s economy. With workplace flexibility, UNH is better prepared for challenging state budget cycles by taking advantage of cost savings and better positioned to deliver the highest quality and value education to our students.3  Of note among its many strategies is the launching of a comprehensive work-life survey to its employees, and an effort to “support a strong performance-based culture focused on results whereby flexible work arrangements and a results orientation need not be at odds, but can be a win-win for the university and its staff.”  The University of Vermont, likewise, has recently hired Massachusetts-based Wellness Corporation to advise on the development of work-life programs.  UVM has an active work-life website as part of their human resources division, offering several flexible work options and other work-life services.  A sampling of other nearby institutions that have embraced a work-life agenda include University of Connecticut, Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design, UMass Amherst, Northeastern University, University of Maine, James Madison University, Boston University, Harvard University, Yale University, and Boston College’s Center for Work and Family.

The URI Work-Life Committee (WLC)

The WLC was formed in 2003, due to a collaborative effort between the President’s Commission on the Status of Women (PCOSW) and the NSF ADVANCE Institutional Transformation Program.  A volunteer group of faculty, staff, and students, the Committee is attuned to national and regional advancements in the work-life arena, and brings cutting edge scholarship to bear in its understanding and promotion of relevant issues.  It is the sole voice on campus promoting a coherent work-life/workplace flexibility agenda, a position we hope will change as our efforts become institutionalized and embraced by Human Resources and the Administration.  The Committee has remained very active over the past 8 years in pursuing policy initiatives, improved practices, and increased awareness of the organizational, economic, and individual benefits in creating a flexible and family-friendly work environment at URI.   The WLC has worked to pass policy (paid parental leave, dual career, lactation), sponsor educational events (administrator and chairs’ workshops, outside speaker events, brown bag topical lunches, etc.), worked as an advisor and resource for individual issues, presented nationally (and internationally in 2012), and engaged in external outreach.  Their website offers a thorough overview of the work-life effort at URI: Currently the WLC, in collaboration with the Schmidt Labor Research Center (SLRC), is preparing to launch a campus-wide staff survey, to be followed by a faculty survey to assess the work-life needs, attitudes, and experiences of URI employees.  This instrument, developed by URI social scientists, represents current, robust constructs in the work-life literature.  It will provide valuable insights to URI administrators and supervisors, as well as exploring inter-relationships between several variables related to work-life, such as stress, care giving responsibilities, level of supervisory support, job satisfaction, intent to leave, dual earner status, etc.  From these findings, they plan to develop a set of recommendations that they believe will be useful in moving URI forward.

Also in the near term, the Committee’s work will focus on exploring the improvement or creation of several URI policies, such as pregnant/parenting students, opt-out tenure-clock extension options, creative phased retirement options, more responsive dual career hiring options, paid parental leave modifications, and part-time employee tuition waiver options, as examples.  As they recognize work-life initiatives as economic drivers, the WLC and the SLRC are aiming to foster relationships with union leaders and Rhode Island economic development offices to promote work-life and flexibility as key components in economic development efforts state-wide. 

Work-Life Options at URI

While there is a need of expansion, options do exist in several forms.  In 2004, a group of faculty campaigned to then President Carothers to improve an archaic maternity leave policy.  Following many months of work by the PCOSW and the ADVANCE Work-Life Committee, a 6-week paid parental leave policy was adopted by the faculty union, AAUP.  This policy was subsequently adapted by all Board of Governor unions, covering approximately 63% of URI employees.  While a significant step forward, this policy is in need of improvement.  Steps should also be taken to determine a means to offer paid leave to the remaining URI employees, who constitute over a third of the URI employee pool, and include employees in 2 of URI’s largest unions, Council 94 and ACT/NEA. Through this same collaboration, URI has a set of nationally-recognized dual-career hiring guidelines for faculty, an increasing challenge in recruitment, as the numbers of dual earner couples increase.  These guidelines need to be better understood and applied more systematically by search committees. In 2008, due to an   Elsevier Foundation grant awarded to the WLC co-chairs, Barbara Silver and Helen Mederer, a Lactation Program was launched, resulting in the adoption of a lactation policy for new mothers returning to work, the establishment of several lactation sites on 3 campuses, and the Rhode Island Department of Health Breastfeeding Friendly Workplace Gold Award.

The WLC sponsors work-life workshops and brown bag lunches.  The URI Human Resources Office sponsors talks and workshops on wellness and financial planning.  Faculty have a phased retirement option, though it, too, needs expansion beyond the current one semester on, one semester off schedule.  Offering phased retirement options to staff employees should also be considered. While URI has a generous benefits package, there is much more that can be done here to make URI a truly family friendly, flexible workplace.  For example, while providing child and elder care giving assistance can perhaps be the one of the more expensive work-life benefits, this is a high priority for many workers.  Options include developing a campus child/elder care center, providing care giving subsidies, and hiring outside contractors.

Workplace Flexibility:  The Building Blocks are There

As far back as 1987, the Rhode Island General Assembly, recognizing changing workforce trends and actions taken by other states, and to “reduce commuter congestion, conserve energy, increase employee morale, increase productivity, and reduce tardiness and absenteeism,” (Ch. 36-3.1-4) passed legislation requiring that optional alternative work schedules be offered to state employees (Ch. 36-3.1-2-8).4  These include flextime, compressed work weeks, job-sharing, permanent part-time, and other alternative work plans.   As well, there are no union contracts for URI employees that specifically prohibit flexible scheduling.  In fact, at least two local union contracts (PSA and ACT) have specific language regarding flexible work schedules, and most, if not all, national union websites have position statements and/or information about the need to balance work and family, and how to bargain for work and family benefits.

It is time for URI to embrace the 1987 legislation and take actions to put a variety of formal, effective, well-publicized, and accessible measures in place for all employees. Relying as we largely have on a few informed supervisors, and an informal, case-by-case approach to solving workers’ needs is inefficient, invites discrimination, and can disadvantage workers who are unable or unwilling to ask and who may need scheduling adjustments the most.  The bottom line is that the University should be proactive rather than reactive in being supportive and responsive to employees’ work-life needs.  We need to embrace a “culture of coverage,” whereby employees and supervisors cover for each other when challenges arise, as they will for every employee at some point, rather than a “culture of compliance” to rigid rules. 
The URI Controllers’ Office provides an excellent model of how to develop a unit-wide set of 
policies to enable approximately 62 employees scheduling flexibility.  Working with Human Resources, they put a formal “Voluntary Flexible Schedule” program in place, and managers in that office are very enthusiastic about its positive outcomes, citing increased productivity and morale.   Coming up next in the Work-Life Movement series is a full description of their model, including an interview with the Controller, the Associate Controller, and employees who have used the program.


1 White House Council of Economic Advisors (2010).  Work-lilfe balance and the economics of workplace flexibility. Retrieved from:
2  White House Office of the Press Secretary (Sept. 26, 2011).  The white house and national science foundation announce new workplace flexibility policies to support America’s scientists and their families.  Retrieved from:
3 University of New Hampshire Campus Journal (September 21, 2011). UNH receives prestigious Sloan award for excellence in workplace flexibility. Retrieved from:
4  R.I. General Laws Title 36, Public Officers and Employees, Chapter 36-3.1: Alternative Work Schedules. Retrieved from:

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