ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - January 2001


Surviving in The New Economy: From virtual workplaces to technology overload, this special feature takes an in-depth look at the changing demands of our workplaces and world.

  In This Issue...

Celebrating the Power of People
Tricks of the Trade—Unique Tranining Ideas
Views For A Change
Pageturners: Flawless Consulting Fieldbook

 One From Column B —
I Will Survive

 Peter Block explains why the new economy is just an economy, and why our relationships and our senses promise survival .

  Surviving In The New   Economy:

Working In A Virtual World
Defining The New Economy
Penny Sanchez- Burruss and Barry Johson, Ph.D

The 24/7 Work Invasion
Info, Info, Everywhere!
Brief Cases
Tips: It's About Time and Finding Time


Return to NFC Index

  Special Feature: Surviving In The New Economy

The 24/7 Work Invasion
The Creeping Act is Over: The Work Place Has Launched an All-Out Attack on Our Personal Lives

Telecommuting, flex time, virtual office-each of these phrases is currently being tossed around in the workplace, in articles and on the Internet. No longer trapped behind their desks, workers are connecting to the office from home, libraries and even parks.
  Technological advances have changed the demands of work. The result? Long hours and blurred boundaries between work and home. Now, although the workweek has exploded from 40 to 50, 60 or more hours, we can choose where we perform some of that work. Is the choice worth the sacrifice of leisure time? Read on for several different perspectives.

Consider this: In 1987, according to the U.S. Census Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans worked an average of 163 more hours per year than in 1969. Our nation's workforce essentially squeezed in a month's worth of extra labor into what was, less than two decades earlier, personal time. And that was before virtual communication invaded every aspect of our lives.

  Want to venture a guess as to how many more work hours we've shoved into the 168 hours we live per week in the year 2001? In the company kitchenette we hear estimates all the time: "I work (50, 60, 70, 80) hours a week." At some Internet start-ups, 20-somethings brag about work hours as high as 120. The numbers get so outlandish and varied that no one statistic sticks, but certainly we can come to a truism about the work week today: As we've increased the number of hours we spend at work, and enhanced the ways in which we bring work home, we need to closely consider the role 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week work has in our lives.

Enablers of the 24/7

  Electronic communication has constructed a permeable membrane between work and life. The proliferation of e-mail, laptops, cell phones, the Internet and hand-held electronic personal organizers with satellite capabilities have swooped down onto the scene like a virtual Superman. It is now possible to go to the park, lay down a quilt in the shade, lean up against the nearest tree trunk with a laptop and cell phone and do your business for the day.

  The electronic inventions of the last decade have made work possible wherever and whenever. So, is the ability to do work wherever you are, at anytime day or night, a good thing? Yes and no, according to Jenny Wohlfarth, executive editor for I.D. Magazine, a bimonthly publication for the design field. Wohlfarth researches the way the physical attributes of a work space change to suit the technology and work-culture demands of the time. She recalls a virtual office experiment by Los Angeles advertising agency TBWA/Chiat-Day. "Everyone had PowerBook laptop computers and cell phones," she says. "Employees could set up wherever and whenever they wanted." But the experiment drew mixed reviews. "It was a kind of forced nomadism. People wanted to plant their feet," Wohlfarth explains.

  When you're in a park or café, you don't have privacy, and people need private space to do concentrated work. Likewise, when you work for a company, you like to come in and actually interact with your colleagues occasionally. TBWA/Chiat-Day has since switched to an innovative hybrid of private and public space. "The whole idea of the modern workplace is things aren't hard and fast," Wohlfarth says. "Office spaces now have to flex. People come in and work at different hours, so the workspace of the future is defined by being flexible. But it's a step back from the virtual office."

  While employees seem to reject the virtual office potential of the 24/7 working world wholesale, there is evidence that they are interested in using technology to connect them to the office and make their efforts more productive while they're away. Consider the growing demand for Internet technologies for cars. According to research by GM and Ford, the number one and number two carmakers in the world, we are entering into a new era of auto technology appropriately dubbed the "e-car." And it's suited perfectly to the 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week working world.

  E-GM, the Internet technology division of GM, is leading the way in offering wireless Internet services in 2001 through its OnStar Virtual Advisor system. OnStar Virtual Advisor functions via voice recognition software and includes features such as e-mail, "Personal Calling" (allowing the driver to make voice-activated calls without an additional cellular contract), stock quotes, news headlines, GPS and more. GM also has a service called "Communiport," an infrared port on the dashboard that enables the user to exchange data with a hand-held wireless computer like the Palm PDA. Such enhancements ensure that today's workforce can tackle some of their duties in their cars before they even get in the office building parking lot.

  If all this working behind the wheel makes you leery of the morning commute, consider another aspect of the 24/7 working world: flextime. Another phenomenon that has punched holes in the barrier between work and home, flextime opens up the possibility of working during non- traditional hours. Many companies offer employees the option of working their eight hours a day or forty hours a week any time they can fit them in, including the middle of the night and on Sundays. Telecommuting, the old-fashioned predecessor to the virtual office, is also a factor in the 24/7 world of work. In order to keep top employees, employers are offering telecommuting as a perk to people who need more time at home.

  With electronic enhancements expanding the world of work beyond office walls, and office hours breaking the 9-5 barrier through telecommuting and flextime, it was only a question of when the 40-hour work week would fracture and ultimately crumble in a heap on the ground. This has happened most infamously with dot-com start-ups, whose flexible working hours initially enabled employees to stay at work for long hours. Combine this with fighting the clock to beat competitors to the IPO, and many young Internet entreprenuers found themselves pulling all-nighters. The culture of dot-com start-ups, known for their futon power-nap rooms and midnight foosball games, is now not only popular, it's the norm in Internet start-ups today.

Work is Everywhere

  It's hard to escape work. Go to the café, and someone's in the corner peering into a laptop screen and talking on a cell phone. At the bookstore, at the park and in cars, people are busy incorporating work into their lives. After-work happy hours have turned into a setting where young execs discuss the next software development, cutting into the time families used to have together to eat dinner and talk about their days.
The lack of a barrier between work and home can be a real benefit. Freelance writer Jenny Brock says some of her best work comes to her while she's doing other things. "Butt in chair doesn't equal productivity for me," says Brock. "[My work] truly ceases to feel like work, because I can be standing in line for a latte and thinking about that perfect word or line."

  Even though Brock bills by the hour, "with a stopwatch in hand," she likes to take things in bite-size pieces, and enjoys playing in the middle of the day. "I keep a notepad by my bed, and I get up at 5 a.m. to write. But that's the beauty of it-I can work when something hits me, and if my friend calls and asks if I want to see a matinee, I say, 'Sure!'"

  Richard Hunt, director of sales and marketing for Cincinnati-based F&W Publications, takes advantage of the flextime and telecommuting opportunities at his company so he can spend more time with his three children. Hunt moved to the Midwest after spending 10 years in publishing in New York City.

  "One of the things I do now that I was never able to do before is drive my kids to school in the morning," Hunt says. "You wouldn't believe the value in that 10 minutes of utter chaos that comes from driving them to school. When I worked in New York, I took the train and was out the door before they were even awake. I'd barely see them for 15 minutes a day." Taking the kids to school means he doesn't get in the office until after 9 a.m., but that's perfectly fine with the boss. Hunt comes home in time for dinner, then goes back into the office "once the kids go to bed, until about 2 a.m."

  The average 60- to 65-hour work week is made worse by travel, however. Like many Americans, Hunt is often gone overnight. When he gets home, work has piled up and any hopes of making up the personal time is lost. "You can't do desk work when you're traveling, so you make it up some other time and end up working more of those night shifts," he says.

  Business travel is both necessary and evil in today's 24/7 working world, according to Hunt. "It's more necessary than ever, because I can communicate by phone and fax and e-mail to prepare, but I still need to sit down face-to-face. I try to catch the first flight out in the morning and only stay over one night, max. It's evil because travelling is stressful. You can't throw yourself into the sky all the time and not think about it. Plus, it's uncomfortable."

  Hunt says if he didn't travel, work would still permeate his personal life. When asked if he thinks a person can maintain the hours he does and lead a balanced life, he says, "Yeah, I do. I'd just fill [my time] with something else. I love what I do. The field I'm in [publishing] makes it worth it."

There's a Riot Going on

  While executives like Hunt and freelancers like Brock are content with the lack of a line between work and personal life, there's a backlash against the 24/7 work invasion in many sectors of the workforce. Especially in dot-com start-ups, where the idea of no separation between work and play got a load of hype, businesses are encouraging their employees to go home.

  The change is due to burnout and to a new group of employees entering the dot-com universe: adults in their 30s and 40s to whom the idea of listening to loud rap music and sitting at their computer terminal at 2 a.m. is anything but desirable.

  In a recent article by Fast Company magazine's contributing editor Pamela Kruger, dot-com CEO Charlie Kim says that turnover at start-ups is so high because people are looking at quality of life issues. "People were working until 1 a.m., drinking coffee and eating junk," he told Kruger, "and they were miserable."

  Once the romance of a start-up is over, many employees are discovering that the sacrifices associated with working long hours aren't worth it. Many start-ups are getting the message, and changing the dynamics of their office place to suit a more traditional 40-hour work week. Lisa Scheuerle, an art director at marchFIRST, a Web-based interactive marketing and advertising firm, says she moved from her previous job at another non-Internet firm because she found better work terms at marchFIRST. "They're concerned about their employees being happy, enjoying a lifestyle outside of the work week. So many companies don't support working long hours," Scheuerle says.

  What Scheuerle and her colleagues appreciate most is that the company is determined to staff properly. As opposed to taking a project approach, the company looks for long-term account contracts, and therefore can create effective deadlines. Occasionally, the staff will have to pull long work weeks, but Scheuerle sees that as the nature of the beast. "People will work toward a deadline no matter what it takes," she says. "But they support overtime, so we feel OK about working 60-hour weeks when we have to."

In the new terrain of the 24/7 workplace, a lesson has been learned. We can use the technology to work better, faster and more freely than we ever have before. But we should use these advantages to work smart, not long.

  Like Scheuerle, many people are starting to view time as a commodity when looking for a job. How many hours a week you work and how you are compensated for the time you put in above 40 hours is just as important as salary and signing bonuses to veterans of the dot-com 24/7 chaos.

Reigning in the Hours

  People don't seem to mind the permeable fabric of work and home that's been woven into their lives through modern technology. To the contrary, the benefits of telecommuting from home, making the park a virtual office for an afternoon or taking advantage of flextime after the kids go to bed, is all welcome in America's workplace. What isn't welcome is taking advantage of these options in a way that overwhelms an individual's right to a personal life.

January 2001Homepage

  • Print this page
  • Save this page

Average Rating


Out of 0 Ratings
Rate this item

View comments
Add comments
Comments FAQ

ASQ News