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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Women now hold half the jobs in the U.S. That means more two-career families are struggling to get the job done and pick up the kids and drop off the dry cleaning. Everyone's searching for that elusive balance, even the working family in the White House. Here's first lady Michelle Obama.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: This isn't just about family balance. This is about making workplaces stronger and attracting the most qualified people.

MONTAGNE: One way some employees are finding that balance is through flex work. We begin a series on the subject with NPR's Jennifer Ludden. She reports that for more and more people, the line between the professional and the personal is fading.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: When Katie Sleep launched her own software development company, she didn't want her employees to suffer, as she had.

Ms. KATIE SLEEP (Owner, List Innovative Solutions): I mean, I've worked in cities like Chicago, Houston, Texas, San Francisco, and the commute takes a lot of your day. You know, my kids were in day care by 6 o'clock, 6 - 6:30.

LUDDEN: In the morning?

Ms. SLEEP: Yeah, so that I could get to work.

LUDDEN: Sleep remembers never eating dinner before dark, never getting to watch her kids play in the yard. Today, her company, List Innovative Solutions, is in nightmare commuter land as well. It sits amid a tangle of highways in Northern Virginia. From her office, she can watch planes take off at an international airport.

So Sleep lets employees largely set their own hours and telecommute at will. And it's not just mothers who ask for this. Fathers want it, too.

Ms. SLEEP: They want the ability to go to their children's play, which is usually at 3. It's never at 5 or 6. And what you find out is, people end up getting their job done.

Unidentified Woman: OK, I'm going to put these on your desk.

Ms. SLEEP: Oh, OK.

LUDDEN: Sleep has nearly 100 employees but on this early afternoon, many offices are empty. I catch Human Resources Director Kristy Stumpf with coat on, preparing to head out in time to beat rush-hour traffic and meet her children's school bus.

Ms. KRISTY STUMPF (Human Resources Director): When I'm in the office, like, that's my face time. Like, today were my meetings, filing, that kind of stuff. And then when I'm home, those are the projects that I work on, and I kind of divide it out how it works best.

LUDDEN: Stumpf's dad was also a long-suffering commuter, and she used to think that's just the way life was. Now, she feels almost guilty at her own good luck.

Ms. STUMPF: Now that I've worked here and realize I would never, never in a million years be able to be in an office 40, 50 hours a week, commute forever. It just wouldn't work. That's terrible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STUMPF: That's terrible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Professor PHYLLIS MOEN (Sociologist, University of Minnesota): We're really in the middle of something like an industrial revolution, but it's really a work-time revolution.

LUDDEN: Phyllis Moen is a sociologist at the University of Minnesota. She says today's labor laws are perfectly suited to 1960. The 40-hour week, 9 to 5 - all that was codified in an era when men went off to an assembly line and women stayed home.

But more and more employers, like Katie Sleep, are discovering that loosening this rigid schedule works.

Ms. SLEEP: If you can give people something that can ease their day, your retention rate's going to go way up.

LUDDEN: In Sleep's case, up to 95 percent. And study after study shows productivity also shoots up. More than half of companies now say they offer flextime, and a third allow telecommuting at least part time.

On the other hand, research also shows employees don't find their workplaces nearly so flexible as managers say. Work-family experts say arrangements are often more generous on paper than in practice, and can be highly dependent on the generosity of immediate supervisors.

So, what about that revolution? Well, work-life experts say another force is building: Working parents are no longer the only ones who want flexible hours.

Ms. LISA HORN (Society for Human Resource Management): When you talk about Gen-X or Gen-Y or the millennials, they've taught us that we can't necessarily say work-family balance.

LUDDEN: Lisa Horn is with the Society for Human Resource Management. And the preferred term now: work-life.

Ms. HORN: The younger generations may be waiting longer to have children or not have children at all, but yet they still value their flexibility and their free time as much as someone with a family.

LUDDEN: You may have heard millennials in the workplace are lazy and entitled, but sociologist Phyllis Moen says that's a bad rap. She says young workers simply don't want to wait decades until retirement for their quality of life -an attitude that's been reinforced by the recession.

Prof. MOEN: My uncle got laid off, etc. - they're talking about this. They no longer believe in the myth that working in rigid ways for long hours necessarily pays off. That's a real change.

Ms. JODY THOMPSON (Co-founder, Culture Rx): This generation is completely untethered. They have laptops, you know, in grade school.

LUDDEN: Jody Thompson is co-founder of Culture Rx, a consulting firm which promotes a completely flexible work style. She says young people today are used to getting stuff done - on laptops, cell phones, iPods - wherever, whenever.

Ms. THOMPSON: And then we bring them into the work environment and we say, here's this, you know, 6-by-6 square you're going to work in, with a desktop computer - which, by the way, to them is a gaming computer. And here's your phone with your cord. And now you come in at 8 and you leave at 5, and between 10 and noon, that's when we're creative. And they can't they don't even know how to relate to that type of system.

LUDDEN: Now, before you start thinking, oh, those crazy young people, experts say yet another push for flexibility will come from an unlikely source: the very baby boomers who defined 9-to-5 culture in their prime. Sociologist Moen says they're getting older, and many will want or need to keep working well past traditional retirement.

Prof. MOEN: And older workers, who you may want to keep on because of their skills or contacts, will want to work differently - more flexibly and less.

LUDDEN: So where's the case against flexible work? It's not so easy to find these days. Even the staunchly pro-business Chamber of Commerce promotes flexibility, although the chamber's Marc Freedman says it only works for some employees and some jobs.

Mr. MARK FREEDMAN (Chamber Director of Labor Law Policy): Not all employees, not all industries and not all jobs. I mean, you can imagine certain jobs where you have to be at the workplace and if you're not there, somebody else is going to have to pick up the load. And that won't be fair to them.

LUDDEN: In fact, researchers are looking into ways to bring more flexibility to low-wage, hourly jobs, and we'll look at that later this week.

But even at her software development company, Katie Sleep agrees all flex arrangements are not for everyone. She, herself, could never work at home.

Ms. SLEEP: No, it's not good for me. I like being around the people.

LUDDEN: Sleep's also had employees take advantage of the flexibility she offers, and she's fired them. But she says it's worth finding those who can handle the freedom, even if it makes her job more difficult.

Ms. SLEEP: There's not a day that I don't kind of panic when I know that my workforce is all working from home. So it's not like you've got it all wrapped up, and that the answers are very simple. It's whether or not you can let loose of that anxiety and let it roll, and really trust in people.

LUDDEN: Tomorrow, we'll see how a government bureaucracy is letting loose, taking flexible work to its extreme.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Jennifer has written an essay on the struggle to have it all. You'll find it at npr.org, where you can share your experiences.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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