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Obamas get to work from home; so should you, they say

The Obamas held a White House forum Wednesday to promote flexible work arrangements, including work from home.

Why did President Obama focus Wednesday on promoting family-friendly workplaces?

It’s a fair question to ask, given all the other agenda items on the president’s plate. Mr. Obama is still working to sell Americans on his new health care reform law, confronting foreign-policy challenges and announcing a new oil-drilling policy, among other things.

But he also convened a White House forum – with a lunchtime address by first lady Michelle Obama – to promote greater availability of work patterns such as telecommuting, flexible scheduling, and nonstandard hours (including job sharing and part-year work).

It’s part of a broader effort by the Obama administration to improve the well-being of middle-class families. One group participating in Wednesday’s event, the Workplace Flexibility 2010 initiative based at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, says the issue deserves policy attention now – even amid wider economic concerns.

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In a new report, the Georgetown group cites four demographic trends that underscore the need for so-called flexible work arrangements at United States firms:

• In 1970, almost two-thirds of married couples had one spouse at home, able to deal with many routine and emergency family needs. By 2000, 60 percent of married couples had both spouses in the workforce – including a majority of parents with young children.

• Total work hours are increasing. In 1970, couples worked a combined average of 52.5 hours per week. Couples now work a combined average of 63.1 hours per week, and 70 or 80 hours is commonplace.

• Employees are increasingly likely to be both working and providing care to a friend or family member. Currently, 59 percent of those caring for a relative or friend are also working.

• Expanding longevity, ongoing interest and financial need are prompting more mature workers to stay in the workforce. By 2015, older workers are expected to constitute 20 percent of the workforce, and many of them want some degree of workplace flexibility.

Although many corporations have embraced a degree of workplace flexibility, some human-resource experts say that workers still face a mismatch between family demands and workplace policies – and that better resolving the conflicts could benefit employers as well as employees.

The forum Wednesday considered possible steps to take, such as federal pilot programs or training for private firms.