Congress Should Explore Greater Flexibility in the Workplace | Commentary

Capitol Hill is often described as one of the most difficult work environments in the U.S. The workforce is made up of extremely dedicated young people working very long hours, and participating in a public policy process that impacts the lives of millions of people. Because of those demands congressional managers often find it difficult to explore office policies that might enhance how employees align their professional and personal lives.

In response to a recent Roll Call article on Brigid Schulte’s new book, “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time,” a staffer commented on Schulte’s advice for improved congressional work-life balance: “Easy to say, hard to do.”

Yet research from the Congressional Management Foundation and the Society for Human Resource Management point not only to the benefits of employers creating a more flexible work environment, but the consequences for congressional offices if they fail to keep up with the competition in the private sector. In the CMF-SHRM survey of more than 1,400 staff, about half of D.C.-based congressional staff reported their reason for leaving Congress was “to seek a better balance between your work and personal life.”

The private sector trends toward providing flexibility in the workplace are clear. The SHRM and the Families and Work Institute conducted a survey of employers with 50 or more employees in 2014. Compared to a similar survey in 2008, more employers were allowing employees to work some of their regular paid hours at home on an occasional basis, change starting and quitting times on a daily basis and take time off during the workday to attend to important family or personal needs.

Moreover, employment research is now clearly proving workflex policies result in greater productivity, lower turnover and greater efficiencies. Employees with a greater work-life fit are twice as likely to stay in their current jobs, four times more likely to be highly engaged at work and two times more likely to be in excellent health. Yet, Congress, like years ago in the private sector, may display resistance from managers or members. “We’re a service business — constituents want answers immediately.” “It’s just not part of our culture.” Or, “How do I KNOW they’re working if I can’t see them?”

Capitol Hill needs to recognize the shifting work environment in the U.S. and educate itself on the diversity of workflex options. Many managers still view their only option as “teleworking.” But it is more than that; it is how, when and where work gets done. The office of Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., has seen the benefits of integrating creative strategies.

“Flexibility improves employee satisfaction and gives employees more control over their lives,” said Tara Oursler, chief of staff. They have used flexible work schedules to their advantage for a variety of situations, from staffers on maternity/paternity leave, to those continuing their education, to someone splitting their time between D.C. and district office locations.

Susan Wheeler, D.C. chief of staff to Sen. Michael D. Crapo, R-Idaho, noted that workflex policies reduced turnover. “The easiest benefit to point to is that we have been able to retain staff for longer tenures, which means we have a lot of institutional memory and experience,” she said. Wheeler said some of their policies are based on basic principles of trust and fairness in the workplace. “We know that staff may have to take care of personal items during the work hours because sometimes that is the only time they have available,” she said. “As long as they don’t abuse it, the policy works well for all.”

It’s impossible to immediately jolt the culture of a congressional office through dramatic changes in office policies. But merely having the conversation among staff and managers is progress. In September, the CMF and the SHRM will continue a training series with managers by offering concrete examples of congressional offices exploring workflex policies and sharing the results. As the workflex policy gap between the D.C. private sector and Congress continues to grow, and Capitol Hill managers struggle with continued frozen or reduced office budgets, the likelihood of losing talented staff will increase. And remember: It won’t be your weakest employees who will leave, it will be your best.

Bradford Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, and is a former congressional staffer.