The Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) released a ground-breaking report this week, “Life in Congress: Aligning Work and Life in the U.S. House and Senate.” The report is based on a survey of more than 1,400 congressional staff and is the first inside look at work-life issues in this unusual work environment.
Outside observers might conclude that the Congress lags behind the private sector in recognizing and adapting the work environment and policies for a 21st century workforce. And while there is some data in the report to suggest this (notably, the significant gap in staffers’ attitudes about the “importance” of work-life balance and their “satisfaction”), it’s essential also to have some historical perspective.
My first work experience on Capitol Hill was as an intern in 1983. At the time, space was so sparse (and that hasn’t changed much) that on the 5th floor of the Cannon House Office Building, the storage spaces were sometimes used for interns. (Housing eager college students in these caged lockers didn’t seem a problem at the time, but when one of them put up a sign “PLEASE feed the interns,” management took notice.)
CMF has seen changes on Capitol Hill that suggests Congress is beginning to adapt. Teleworking arrangements – especially using technology more effectively – are now possible. CMF observed how one House Member allowed her Chief of Staff to work part-time after a difficult pregnancy. A Senator encouraged his long-time Legislative Director to work four days a week to spend more time with family. And last year a House office integrated a half-day session at their strategic planning meeting for “work-life” issues. Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD) won an award last summer for his work-life policies. I saw him at the ceremony, hosted by Working Mothers Media and Corporate Voices for Working Families, and he said, “We had to have better policies – we had three babies last year!”
Our friends at SHRM have a broader perspective about work-flex issues, beyond the common challenges with parenthood and work. “Work-flex is about how, when, and where you get your work done,” says Lisa Horn, Co-Leader of SHRM’s Workplace Flexibility Initiative. For Congress, this is probably the most important take-away from the new CMF-SHRM report. Congress has an incentive to think creatively about its workforce. The CMF and SHRM research suggests that flexible workplace policies lead to a more effective and productive workforce. It’s not just about morale (although, there’s something to be said for a happier workforce). It’s about helping this wonderful group of workers reach their potential in both their professional and personal life.
CMF and SHRM will release two more reports in this series. In January we’ll release, “Life in Congress: A Member’s Perspective,” based on responses and interviews with 25 House Members. And the final report in March will be “Life in Congress: A Workplace Satisfaction Study,” based on our survey of staff. In 2013 CMF and SHRM will also offer training programs, providing creative solutions to common work-life challenges. And we’ll produce a “best practices” report, highlighting individual office’s policies that other offices can emulate.
In addition to offering guidance to managers, a goal of the project is to shine a light on this extraordinary work environment. For constituents, we hope those who read these reports come away with a different attitude about Congress, and view Members and staff not as faceless bureaucrats, but as dedicated public servants. That’s the Congress CMF has seen throughout our 35-year history.