Commentary: 9 To 5 Isn't Working Anymore

For all the country's New Economy ways, most jobs are still modeled on the clock-punching culture of the industrial past. Like wired-up assembly-line drones, people are expected to show up Monday through Friday and do their work in eight-, nine-, or ten-hour chunks of time. This rusty arrangement is exactly what IBM's vice-president of global workforce diversity, Ted Childs, wants to smash to pieces. Sounding like a corporate General Patton, Childs warns: "We're going to grab that old model by the throat and choke it to death."

That's strong talk for a human resources executive. But Childs is waging a difficult campaign. So far, most of Corporate America's response to the skin-tight labor market has been to lather job candidates with juicy options packages and perks. But there's fresh evidence that those companies are missing the boat. New studies, including one from the Boston College Center for Work & Family, find that most workers' No. 1 concern has nothing to do with getting free flying lessons or health insurance for their pets. It doesn't even have to do with chopping the hours they work or fattening their paychecks. Rather, employees' top priority is getting the flexibility to control their own time and when, how, and where they do their jobs---giving them the freedom to finesse their own work-life balance.

SPOOKED SHAREHOLDERS. Sounds easy. But that requires no less than rethinking and reengineering people's jobs. Called "work redesign," these projects often involve clipboard-toting consultants who nose around in every department, sometimes tearing apart people's routines for months. Plus, if word gets out that a company is in the midst of one of these mini-revolutions, shareholders could get spooked. Some companies are so secretive about these projects that they won't talk about them even if they're going smoothly.

But a handful of savvy CEOs and human resource types like Childs are forthcoming about such workplace transformations. They're aiming to cure today's biggest human resources headache--retention of rising stars and would-be retirees--by rejiggering jobs so that workers' lives are a top priority, alongside customer expectations and the P&L. And by making things easier at home, these businesses are getting the worker loyalty and productivity and efficiency gains they sought all along.

Today at IBM, the company that was once so rigid that it banned floral ties, managers are allowed to work part-time--and from home--so they can better juggle the demands of their children and their jobs. From a den in the family colonial, Joanna Dapkevich manages 50 software customer-service representatives at IBM's office park in Raleigh, N.C., 10 miles away.

After Dapkevich got pregnant in 1997, she asked her boss if she could work part-time from home but still keep her job. Accommodations had to be made. Since Dapkevich would only be working part-time, a third of her business had to be spun off to two other managers itching for more responsibility. And Dapkevich had to retrain her people to not think they were bothering her every time they phoned her at home.

Since her new schedule went into effect, Dapkevich's customer-satisfaction ratings have risen sharply, from 80% to 85%. Her team's morale is also the highest of the four that make up her division. Says Dapkevich: "This way, I can give 120% to IBM and 120% to my newborn, and this nets out to zero guilt for me."

GUILT-FREE. Working parents at Merck & Co. are feeling a lot less guilty, too. A year ago, the Whitehouse Station (N.J.)-based company embarked on a massive work-redesign effort, asking employees what maddened them most about their jobs. People in the payroll department made big noises about the mounds of overtime that had become as habitual as coffee breaks. The pharmaceutical giant realized how much of the department's work wasn't computerized, and how the 9-to-5 workday didn't match the cyclical pileup of work. Automation and new schedules helped sink department overtime 50% and allowed the number of people with flexible work arrangements to double, to 45%.

The benefits of work redesign have even shown up in some unlikely places--like the bedroom. After moving 200 bankers from pricey downtown Boston office space to cheaper digs in Framingham, Mass., Fleet Financial Group got pounded with a raft of complaints about longer commutes, smaller support staff, and a focus on pumping out as many loans as possible instead of providing quality and customer service. With the help of researchers from Radcliffe's Public Policy Institute, telecommuting options were offered. A new backlog manager was hired to handle the overload, and officers were allowed to swap loans with each other. It didn't take long for the bad feelings to die down. The number of employees who reported struggling with insomnia dropped by 35%.

The upsides aren't surprising, considering a recent poll by Los Angeles-based Flexible Resources Inc., in which 56% of managers say employees with flexible schedules are more productive per hour. That kind of positive buzz is what has driven work redesign successes at such places as Ernst & Young, Hewlett-Packard, Bank of America, and Lucent Technologies.

But for all the demonstrated benefits of these changes, the majority of companies have yet to sign on. David Meador is vice-president and controller of DTE Energy Co. in Detroit, where he fought hard to implement what he calls work redesign "interventions." Prior to his stint at DTE, he sweated just as much over pushing through work redesign changes at Chrysler Corp., where he was the controller of the Mopar parts division until 1997. At both companies, most employees were unhappy with their work-life balance. But their cultures did not allow the matter to be discussed, says Meador. "At first, executives said, `it's not an issue here,' and `we don't need it,"' he says. "This happened to be coming from white males who had worked 70 hours a week their whole lives. They didn't see it as a problem for them, so they didn't think it was a problem for anybody else." The face-time, company-first culture at DTE was so pervasive in the account and finance departments that people took vacation days when they were ill for fear that having sick days on their records would mar chances for promotions.

Meador set about changing this mindset in a work redesign pilot program launched this year. Gone is the hall-monitor atmosphere in which some workers felt they had to sneak out early even when they were legitimately owed time off. "Now, the focus is on whether we produce, not on how or where or when we do it," says DTE financial consultant Lisa Sexton-Garon.

Not long ago, DTE might have gone the way of the faddish fix-it: $200 nights on the town and complimentary dry-cleaning pickups at employee cubicles. But a new generation of smart companies isn't hesitating to admit something's wrong and throw out the old playbook. These are essential moves for those corporations that don't want to be considered the crotchety holdovers of another work-life age.

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