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What Will 2008 Hold for Our Work-Lives?

A new year is at hand, and we wonder what awaits. The Wall Street Journal's Sue Shellenbarger offers a glimpse of the work-life trends she's anticipating for next year, and some of what she writes reflects trends my sources have mentioned throughout 2007.

Shellenbarger points to three trends:

  • High-quality part-time positions for skilled workers will multiply as staffing firms promote flexibility in the workplace.

Candidate applications to Flexible Executives, Atlanta, which places executives in contract positions that allow them to work from anywhere, doubled in 2007 to about 40 a month, says co-founder Jamie Pennington.

  • Volunteer work will more closely resemble career tracks. One of the drivers behind this trend is at-home moms volunteering to cultivate skills they can transfer to paid positions.
  • Working women who become pregnant will share the news with their employers sooner than they have in the past.

To this "Look at Me Generation" -- as a Pew Research Center study recently dubbed them -- outing one's pregnancy before the customary second trimester will seem normal. One-third of 600 new mothers surveyed for Church & Dwight, Princeton, N.J., a pregnancy-test maker, told their employers during the first trimester.

I'm not recommending this. Pregnancy discrimination is still widespread. Disclosure early, when risk of miscarriage is higher, puts a woman at double risk of suffering publicly over a pregnancy loss, plus bias among bosses who may associate pregnancy with a lack of job commitment.

Increasingly Flexible

Shellenbarger's predictions underscore what many of my sources have repeated all year: Flexibility is a major trend in the workplace, and will continue to be. Good part-time jobs, volunteering and being more up-front about pregnancy are part of the larger trend of flexibility.

In a flexible workplace, there will be more room for very solid part-time work, with good pay and benefits. The demand for respectable part-time work is high, as a survey by the Pew Research Center found earlier this year: 60 percent of working moms rate part-time work as their ideal, up from 48 percent in 1997.

Besides working moms, people pursuing advanced degrees or continuing education and others juggling a bundle of demands also may choose part-time work.

A New York Times piece by Lisa Belkin examines flexibility:

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the author of “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps” (Harvard Business School Press, 2007), proposes a similar New Year’s resolution for executives. The “permission” for balance must come from the top, she said: “Walk the talk, strut the stuff.”

Ms. Hewlett pointed to leaders who have already done so. “Niall FitzGerald, when he was chairman of Unilever, made a public breakfast date several times a week with his 6-year-old daughter,” she said. (Mr. FitzGerald stepped down in 2004.) “Instead of pretending he was at some early morning meeting, he told everyone what he was doing,” she said. “It was profoundly liberating for his subordinates, and resulted in a 20 percent uptake in people making use of existing flexibility policies.”

My 2008 Forecast

I believe in 2008 there should be, and there will be, more conversations about a flexible workplace. The debates will continue to raise awareness among employers and employees, and help refine what flexibility means. The workforce won't become thoroughly flexible next year. But the conversations have begun, and that is half the battle.

I also think working at home will continue to gain traction. Not until I climbed aboard the work-from-home train earlier this year did I recognize its benefits, through my own experience and by talking with career experts and other home-based workers. Two big benefits of at-home work are flexibility and increased productivity. I've been reporting, researching, writing and editing more this year than at any other time in my 11-year career as a journalist, and I have achieved more balance in the rest of my life.

There are drawbacks, such as a lack of human interaction and a tendency for some to work too much. Nor is home-based work feasible for all professions or suitable for all personalities and work styles. Still, as the push for flexibility continues, and as technology advances, I believe more employees and employers will embrace some form of home-based work.

So here's to a year of job growth, prosperity in our careers and progress on all fronts--including flexibility.

Happy new year!

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