October marks the first anniversary of the 1 Million for Work Flexibility movement. Throughout the month on our blog, we are pleased to highlight a variety of perspectives from thought leaders in the field of work flexibility. Today’s post features Stew Friedman, Founding Director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project and Practice Professor of Management at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

1MFWF: What sparked your commitment to and interest in flexibility in the workplace? What was your personal “aha” moment about the importance of work flex?

Stew: I became interested in the whole question of how to integrate work and the rest of life when my first child was born in 1987. I could not stop asking myself and everyone around me, “What must we do to create a safe world for the next generation?” When I brought this question to the students in my Wharton MBA class, I found that many of them were seeking answers, too.

That conversation propelled my quest to discover useful knowledge about what people at all levels in organizations can do to help families and communities take care of the people who depend on them, and to do so in ways that also create economic value for their businesses and for society.

1MFWF: What are the most effective ways employees have successfully requested work flex?

Stew: From working with tens of thousands of people on this issue for decades now, I’ve discovered that there is no one best way, other than the way that works—for you, as well as for your business, your family, and your community.

The key is to be very clear about what matters most to you and to the people around you and to then experiment with ways of getting things done that work for you and for your key stakeholders. That is, when asking for extra time in the morning to see your children off to school, or for time in mid-day to tend to an aging parent, it’s essential for you to work with your superiors and peers to help them see how allowing you to tend to what’s important to you can ultimately help them, in ways they care about.  You’ll have less on your mind that might be interfering with your ability to efficiently get your work done, for example. And it’s an experiment, if it doesn’t work for everyone, if you’re not able to get at least as much done as before, then you’re willing to go back to the status quo or try another experiment with flex-time. It might seem daunting, but I’ve discovered that virtually everyone can do this. That’s the really good news. On the other hand, it’s not easy; you have to invest in this process of diagnosis and discovery.

1MFWF: We often hear about how workers need better work/life integration for their own well-being. Can you explain more about how work/life integration isn’t just a positive for individuals, but is also good for organizations as well?

Stew: My goal is to show people how it’s possible to pursue what I call “four-way wins”—demonstrably improved performance in all four domains of life: work, home, community, and self (the private realm of mind, body, and spirit). When you adopt this mindset of seeking opportunities, within your control, to take small actions that benefit all the key stakeholders in your life, you’re likely to gain support, feel more confident, and be unburdened by guilt in initiating change. If it’s just about you or your family then it’s not going to work. The path to sustainability is to be seeking wins for all those who matter to you.

1MFWF: There are only 24 hours in a day. If a worker is spending more time with family, or at the gym, or sleeping, etc., that has to mean they are spending less time at their desk. How can that be good for business?

Stew: My research indicates that if you focus attention on yourself or your family in ways that you expect will have positive, even if indirect, benefits for your business (by being healthier, more energetic, or less cranky, for example), then you’re probably going to see those benefits. More importantly, the people around you at work will see these ripple effects, too. But you have to check. So it’s crucial to gather data on whether that’s indeed happening, as you try doing things that benefit one part of your life (like exercising, for instance) that you expect will bring benefits to the other parts.

1MFWF: You’re the founding director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, you teach courses on executive leadership, you host a radio show on Work and Life, you’re the author of multiple books including your most recent, Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life, and you’re a father. What are some concrete things you’ve done with your own scheduling and workflow to help ensure you have the work/life integration that’s best for you?

Stew: I’m continually trying new ways to improve my own ability to get the things done that matter most to me and to the people who matter to me. When my children were young, for example, I made sure to be available during breakfast and afterwards so I could walk them to the bus stop or to school and to be present at dinner with them. To do this and meet my career goals, I’d wake up early, before everyone, and get work done. I didn’t watch too much TV in those days. And again after everyone was in bed I’d put in hours of worktime. I worked around the family schedule.

Learn more about Stew’s books, including his just-released Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life featuring stories of six remarkable leaders: Tom Tierney, Sheryl Sandberg, Eric Greitens, Michelle Obama, Julie Foudy, and Bruce Springsteen.

Hear more from Stew about his method of Total Leadership:

To learn more about the business benefits of work flexibility, watch our webinar Employers Who Embrace Flexibility (and Are Hiring!) featuring panelists from flexible companies Appen, Convergys, PGi, and FlexJobs.

photo credit: Stew Friedman