Right-to-request-flex ordinance goes into effect in San Francisco

Effective Jan. 1 of this year, workers in San Francisco who have caregiving responsibilities have the right to request changes to their working conditions, thanks to the Family Friendly Work Ordinance. A similar right-to-request law was also passed in Vermont last spring.

The San Francisco ordinance applies to all employees in the city and county of San Francisco who work for employers with 20 or more employees in the city.

The laws create a formal avenue for workers to ask about their work schedule needs. While the laws don’t mandate that employers agree to such flexibility, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisor’s president, David Chiu, who introduced the ordinance, said the legislation has two main goals: to “provide San Francisco employees who are caretakers or parents the right to request predictable and flexible workplace schedules, and prohibit employment discrimination based on an employee’s status as a caretaker or parent.”

EBN spoke with Shani Magosky, CEO of Vitesse Consulting, to understand the broader effects of these ordinances and why more companies might start implementing flexibility measures now, before they become mandated.

Can you give us some details about San Francisco’s ordinance and what it means for workers in that city?

Their ordinance is actually the second one. The state of Vermont passed a law like that even before the city of San Francisco did. It’s interesting that the east coast would do anything before the west coast. Basically what it does it mandates for employees to be able to request flexibility or predictability in their schedules, and then the employer has to respond within a certain timeframe. They [employers] don’t have to respond with a ‘yes.’

If they do respond with a ‘no’, however, it’s got to be based on a series of reasons that are outlined in the ordinance as acceptable reasons to say ‘no’, but at least they can tell the employer to actually accept their request and evaluate and respond to the request.

I think what’s important about the San Francisco and the Vermont legislation is it’s going to really help the blue-collar shift workers, hourly workers. Most of the flexible work [options] that we see, for whatever reason, tend to be among white-collar knowledge workers. People think they’re mostly doing computer work and so if they request it, they can work from home or they can work from another city and just video-conference into meetings, or whatever the case may be. I think there has just been a lack of awareness about all the flexibility options that are available for workers [who] aren’t necessarily knowledge workers, sitting in front of computers. What is really going to be important about these ordinances is that they will help companies to think more creatively about how they can have some flexibility for their entire workforce, not just the managers and the white-collar folks.

What would you say to someone who thinks this is just too much — that we’ve moved into this realm of regulating flexibility and telling employers how they have to allow their employees to be flexible. Is that a concern?

There’s still a lot of flexibility within the flexibility. The ordinance and the laws aren’t mandating what types of flexibility you need to offer, and it’s largely up to the employee requesting the flexibility to specify what they’re looking for because there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for flexibility. It really depends on the situation, and certainly a range of flexibility options may work in a particular company or a particular industry and workers can have a choice of those, but every person has, I would say, a different approach to work. Every team has a different dynamic. Every type of business has things that do or don’t lend themselves to flexibility and that, of course, is company culture. 

Although it’s not required in the ordinance, any worker who is going to submit a request for flexibility or predictability would be very smart to not just put in a request in a vacuum. [They should] put in a request along with their business case for why it makes sense and a plan for how they’re going to put it into action and communicate with the their colleagues, their clients, their managers, so that the thing will actually work.

It’s not about forcing companies into certain types of flexibility; it’s about raising awareness of the needs of the changing workforce.

There will presumably be some training involved for HR managers in San Francisco and Vermont on this. Obviously they’ll need to know what’s in the ordinance but, what else would you recommend for them, and in general for all employers?

They’re going to have to come up with the policies and procedures. I would recommend any company that is trying to get into compliance to develop all the paperwork as needed so that there’s no confusion and that there’s consistency.

If there is a standardized format or even a form that they want employees to follow when they’re submitting their request, to whom does that request get submitted? Is it directly to the manager with a copy to HR? [They need to figure] out what the standard operating procedure is going to be around the request. And then what is the procedure and timing around the consideration process and either the approval or denial process, and finally, some consistency in the communication about an approval or denial.

Looking even further out for those circumstances where they’re approving because they think the business case is good and they think the person is going to be as productive, if not more highly productive with the flexible work arrangement, then [it also requires] thinking through the internal processes for communication and collaboration. For example, does their company have the infrastructure that it needs from an IT standpoint to support these people? Are we just going to put them out there and expect them to figure it out? The conversation starts to involve not just human resources, but the legal department and the IT department, to really flesh it out so there is a good internal plan to address the flaws.

How would you say, in general, this whole issue of workplace flexibility has evolved over the years, with companies having up to three generations in the same workplace?

It’s evolved to a place where the lines between work and not-work are so blurred that flexibility is inevitable. … The term ‘work-life balance’ is terrible because, first of all, even if it was in context doable, it’s not even relevant anymore. We’re no longer in the Mad Men age when you could just leave the advertising agency and go home and kiss your wife, pat your kids on the head, have dinner, and not check your voicemail and your email. We’re connected 24/7.

But even when it wasn’t quite outdated, when we weren’t quite as connected, to me the whole idea of balance is [a misnomer] because unless you’re retired or independently wealthy, you really don’t have true balance. Which by definition is two equal things on either side of the proverbial see-saw that you’re trying to balance … the reality is, not counting sleep, those of us who work spend more time working than we do playing and being at home with our families.

I call it life/work infusion, which is basically a tip of the hat to what’s happened in the food business, because I am a foodie. You see how we infuse our olive oils with flavor.  We infuse our chocolates and our teas, and everything we infuse them with makes them more delicious or more healthy or more flavorful. To me, that’s what we really want to do with life and work — squeeze some more juice out of it so we’re our best selves everywhere.

The flexibility thing is not like an optional perk; it’s just a foregone conclusion that the only way millennials — and the generation after that, which are the pure digital natives, also sometimes called Gen Z — will work is if they have the ability to do it from any place at any time and from any device. The workforce is just going to have to continue to adapt to that.

On the opposite side of that demographic are the baby boomers, who are working longer than the prior generation for a lot of reasons – some financial, some health-related. They’re living longer and they’re more vibrant and they don’t want to retire at 55, 60 or even 65. However, to the extent [organizations] want to keep those folks engaged and contributing their extensive institutional knowledge to the workplace, they’re also going to want flexibility. They’re going to want maybe slightly longer vacations to travel with their grandkids or whatever the case may be. The baby boomers are also looking for just a little bit more flexibility too. You’re seeing it across the spectrum that it’s just a foregone conclusion.


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