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College Campuses Could Change Work-Life Culture

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At George Mason University, the campus is bustling. But inside you won't see too many administrators in busy school offices because of the school's work-flex policy.

Robyn Maydar works here as a full-time office trainer in the human resources department. She's also a part-time grad student and full-time mom. She says what makes it all work is the university's flexibility.

"I tell people the number one retention tool for me is flexible work. It allows to do the things I want to do in my life, as well do the things I want to do in my job," she says.

Maydar says George Mason allows her to spend hours at home working on her job. She says the option for telework has made her more productive than she was on a 9-to-5 schedule.

"On those telework days, I can really focus and dive into my writing and the time just flies past because I'm just totally absorbed in what I'm doing," she says.

She says she saves time and money, cutting back on long commutes in the midst of rising gas prices.

"Getting time that time back with my daughter makes being a working mother a lot easier," she says.

Work-life conflicts for women

George Mason Professor Jaime Lester has conducted work-life studies on women at universities across the country. She says many women are not as fortunate as Maydar.

Frequently, she says, women are the ones most in need of work flexibility due to family obligations. But that can be difficult to find at most universities. According to her research, many office positions which women frequently hold require employees to be present.

"You have this tension of women who have this pull away from their jobs because of their responsibilities at home, and at the same time it's very difficult to offer them any type of flexible schedule when they need to be in that position," says Lester.

Lester says universities across the nation are lagging behind corporate America when it comes to implementing workplace flexibility for staff.

She says for the most part, professors enjoy the benefits of work flex, but that can create tension for other employees.

"Imagine if you're a staff worker and you have to come back after having a baby and the faculty member you work with gets to have a whole semester off. Those are the kinds of disparities that we see on college campuses," she says.

The role of universities

And it's not just a gender issue; some say it's a class issue. Many experts point to a perception that work flex is reserved for elite, white-collar professionals, whether it's professors or accountants.

Lester says that's why it's so important that universities embrace the concept of workplace flexibility, because academic institutions have tremendous influence on work-life trends across the country. They have the power to affect all fields of work.

But right now, she says, colleges and universities are behind because of a lack of creativity. Many schools are simply set in their ways.

"There's really no reason that someone else could not spend every other Friday at that front desk to allow that person to have a flexible work schedule," Lester says.

But work-flex policies are costly and can be difficult to implement, enough to give some universities pause. George Mason is considered to be a pioneer of sorts. The university put its policy into place back in 2002, and the staff here have spent years refining it.

Implementing a flex plan that works

Despite initial challenges, Work/Life Coordinator Janet Walker says administrators quickly discovered one key component to a successful work-flex plan.

"It's designed to put the decision-making and the design of the agreement in the hands of the people most directly affected by it: It's between the supervisor and the employee," she says.

Walker says now flexibility is the key selling point for the jobs here.

Due to state budget constraints, George Mason has not given pay increases in three years. Walker says that's not a factor for most people coming through the door with a resume.

"People come here, people stay here, because we have a reputation for being flexible," she says.

Whether or not universities across the nation follow that example remains to be seen. But Maydar says she doesn't know if she can ever go back to the 9-to-5 grind.

"I don't think I'll ever be able to go anywhere else and feel as good about my workday as I do with what I'm doing here at George Mason." she says.

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