OpenWork Conversations: Nanette Fondas on the Way Forward for OpenWork

Nanette Fondas is co-author of “The Custom Fit Workplace,” considered by many to be the bible of workplace flexibility. OpenWork spoke with Nanette about the state of flexibility today and the way forward.


Nanette has studied workplace innovation since graduate school and is widely regarded as an expert on the topic of work-life-family balance. She’s a frequent contributor to publications including Huffington Post, The Atlantic and Psychology Today, and has taught at Harvard, the Fuqua School of Business at Duke and at the University of California. We spoke with Nanette about the way forward for OpenWork.


OW: Why do you think the topic of OpenWork is important?

NF: The world has changed so much in the last 60 years, and organizations need to adapt. Women are in the workforce to stay. Mothers are in the workforce to stay. Millennials are moving into middle-management jobs and higher. Globalization is here to stay with its high-velocity competitiveness. The demand to adapt will be felt everywhere, not just in U.S. companies, but worldwide.

(Photo: Nanette Fondas)

OW: When it comes to driving actual change in the workplace, who do you think is leading the charge?

NF: It’s tempting to say that thought leaders (such as professors, journalists and consultants) are leading the way with reports, studies and statistics. But, I actually think that employees are driving the change now. Research such as the historic Hawthorne Studies sparked the human relations movement and began to pry open the door to high-commitment ways of working. Today, I would argue that demographic shifts — millennials, women, diversity overall — will make OpenWork a business imperative. That is, employees will demand changes in exchange for their commitment, drive and sacrifice. Employers will meet that demand by adapting.

NF: The most progress clearly has been the recent “arms race” to offer more and better paid parental leave — for mothers and fathers [including] adoptive parents. threw down a challenge with their 18 weeks of leave, and so many others followed. The problem is that children’s needs don’t disappear after a few months, or even a year, of parental leave. Work-at-home, ROWE, flex-time and job sharing could be utilized much more by companies. That flexibility is key (and it’s not just parents who value it) to the commitment organizations need to secure from their employees.

The two places I think companies have fallen short are in job sharing and child care. I’d like to see as much interest in these two issues as we’ve seen recently in paid parental leave.

OW: How would you recommend a very traditional 9-to-5 company make initial steps towards embracing a custom, results-focused mindset? Where should they begin so that they can see results quickly without “rocking the boat?”

NF: Start small and then build on a success. Specifically, I’d start with paid sick days. Too many people go to work when they are sick or should call in sick because a child is home from school ill. As an initial step, allowing people a reasonable number of paid sick days sends important positive signals: we value you, your health, your caregiving of a sick family member, and we TRUST you. Trust is the foundational value upon which any results-based, high commitment, open work arrangement will be built.

     (Photo: Amazon)

OW: In your article “How Women and Men Use Flexible Work Policies Differently” for The Atlantic, you mentioned a study that found managers perceive employees who work more hours in the office are viewed more positively. How can employees who telecommute or take advantage of flexible schedules combat that trend?

NF: The ideal worker norm is still alive and well — that “rate breaker” who puts in more time than everyone else, whether it is productive time or not. I talk to people every week who tell me “my boss is traditional and likes to see me in the office,” but people who do work remotely and flexibly can prove themselves, and in my experience that is the key to combating the stigma, maintaining the work arrangement and opening up the option for more employees.

OW: Lastly, how do you think supporters of OpenWork can best accelerate change among employers and workplaces?

NF: Though I made the case that “demand” from employees will create a “supply” from employers, I must add that all of the examples, studies and books written recently clearly are making a dent. There is an interesting organizational dynamic where companies imitate one another (with strategies, policies and benefits) because they don’t want to be seen as less legitimate than their rivals and peers. Underneath that dynamic may be competition for talent, but sometimes it’s just plain old imitation. It’s called organizational isomorphism, and it has been fascinating to watch it unfold over the last 18 months, with news — daily, it seemed — of more companies adopting better parental leave policies. That’s how I see the change emerging. We can accelerate it by keeping the information in front of decision-makers, via media stories, case studies, conferences and connecting digitally — just as you are doing at OpenWork.


Nanette’s latest thoughts about work-life-family matters can be found on Twitter @NanetteFondas.