In an age when workers no longer live a short walk or train ride from their places of employment; in an age when more and more workers can commute at the click of a mouse; in an age when parents are torn between the pressures of the office and the longing for home, why are our workplace policies stuck in the era of heavy industry? Why are Oklahomans of the 21st century saddled with laws and regulations designed for the Thirties?
The fault lies in shortsighted, backward-looking government. We need to adapt our workforce for the future, moving government policies from the era of "one-size-fits-all" to the era of "user-friendly."
Rep. Mike Shelton, D-Oklahoma City, has proposed a good first step. He advocates allowing state employees to move to a four-day week with 10-hour workdays. His plan staggers off days to keep state agencies open all five weekdays. This plan is specifically designed to alleviate the heavy burden of fuel prices facing Oklahoma's families. With gas at almost $4 a gallon, one less day of commuting can mean, effectively, a raise for thousands of state workers.
To build our 21st century economy, we must go much further. In addition to optional compressed schedules, workers will be given more telecommuting options and increased use of comp time " where overtime can be transferred to time off elsewhere rather than the old "time and a half."
Although some innovative Oklahoma companies are leading the way, there is plenty the state government can do to make Oklahoma a front-runner in the creation of flexible workforces. Statutes and regulations must be revisited by the Legislature and agencies to take into account the changes from an industrial economy to the information age. Let's face it: The bulk of employment no longer revolves around all workers clocking in and out at the same time to work on a factory line.
Next, the Legislature should create and expand tax credits for the infrastructure needed for telecommuting. Businesses that provide laptops and create virtual private networks to allow workers to be productive without being tethered to a desk should be rewarded with, at the least, increased capital depreciation allowances.
The benefits of these flexibility reforms are not only economic (increased productivity through happy workers), but more importantly, personal. Restoring work-life balance is crucial to a society where often both parents work. It seems the debate over family values has become ever more divisive. Here is one area where families can truly be strengthened in a way that benefits us all " the gift of time.
A note of caution: Many commentators and policy makers speak of the new economy in too extreme of a way. Sometimes adapting to the needs of an information economy does not mean that strong backs and skilled hands will become obsolete. A broad perspective will always keep the country and the city in sight, as well as the suburban office park.
In the long run, I am confident that these needed reforms can and will be implemented by responsible policy makers. At the risk of repeating myself, it is important in this time of divisiveness to find common ground. Expanding workforce flexibility is good for business, good for workers and good for Oklahoma.
Reese is an attorney who lives with his wife and sons in Oklahoma City.