Job Security, No. Tall Latte, Yes

Which traditions from the dot-com revolution will endure?

When dot-coms started building gourmet coffee bars modeled on Central Perk from the TV show Friends--complete with mood lighting, overstuffed sofas, and 14 varieties of premium brews--some wondered if the New Economy frills were getting out of hand. It was one thing to hand out signing bonuses to janitors and maids to summer interns. If a slowdown occurred, these perks could easily be whacked. But caffeine-addicted employees swarmed the espresso machines like druggies angling for a fix. Yanking this freebie could send them into convulsions of revolt.

Not to worry. The dot-com era may be dead, but, for the most part, connoisseur office coffee is here to stay. In fact, instead of worrying about being cut off from their caffeine supplies, employees can also look forward to mainlining free bottled water and subsidized snacks, both of which are in the offing at many companies--despite the slowdown-induced emphasis on cost-cutting.

SOUPED UP. What began as a dot-com dividend has "spilled over into a legacy," says Richard Wyckoff, president of corporate America's top coffee supplier, Aramark Refreshment Services, which reports that sales of souped-up coffee machines tripled in the past year. Many companies such as Philadelphia-based Omicrom say that no matter how bad things get, they wouldn't dare pull the perk. Even managers at MCI Worldcom Inc., who postmerger were told to can the coffee, have resumed re-ordering.

The any-kind-of-coffee-you-want largesse is not the only New Economy legacy. Far from being fads that will evaporate like so many market caps, many of the workplace revolutions developed to coddle employees and warehouse them in offices for as long as possible might very well strengthen during the next 15 years. Part of the reason is economic. Even with the slowdown, companies must still compete for valued knowledge workers. And as employees are forced to clock workaholic hours in the global, 24/7 economy, companies will have to make offices seem more and more like home.

Attitudinal shifts about the workplace are also a key factor. Earlier in their lives, many of the boomers now running the show spat on bourgeois values, disdained all things corporate, and fancied themselves as bohemians. In fact, today's corporate chieftains make up the first generation that didn't serve in the armed forces and wasn't weaned on military models of organization. Thus, some have refashioned offices in the image of their freewheeling, anti-establishment values. They want to succeed, but they also want to be cool.

Of course, not everything about the loosey-goosey New Economy workplace will stick. Skin-tight spandex and scruffy facial hair at the office are fading as fast as knee-length skirts on the runway. Underscored by a President who requires crisp, company-man dress, the suit is making a big comeback. Some firms such as recruiter Korn/Ferry have even reinstituted the button-down codes of yore--except in Silicon Valley. Already, retailer Men's Warehouse Inc. and fashion designer Joseph Abboud are forming a marketing alliance aimed at the resurgence of professional dress.

Waning, too, is the reign of the unwrinkled. Seasoned, over-40 types bring a level of comfort to employers that postpubescent wireheads never could. Another casualty: resume puffery. Gone are the days when employers skipped the background and reference checks, allowing fakers to sail through. And the corporate carpetbaggers who bounced from job to job, collecting fatter paychecks and more options along the way, are no longer laughing at those "loyalist losers." They're asking them for jobs.

But for the most part, dot-com style perks will become permanent fixtures of the work landscape. Cultural changes wrought by the New Economy stem from when all those startups were siphoning off Old Economy workers amid the worst labor shortage in modern history. Rather than sit back and take it, Big Five accounting firms, Rust Belt stalwarts, investment banks, and law firms were forced to remake themselves in the image of their worker-snatching rivals. The strategy shifted the balance of power in employees' favor, and companies still haven't been able to completely regain their upper hand. That's why the recent pileup in layoffs isn't going to magically turn everyone back into a gold-watch seeker. Those days have been replaced by the free-agent mentality, in which the most talented workers can still afford to seek better deals within their companies and on the open market.

The smartest companies know this. Instead of ensnaring employees financially with more signing bonuses and huge salaries, they are trying to hook them emotionally with management retreats, special awards, and assistance with elder and dependent care. And rather than resorting to their old strategy of assembling secret SWAT teams to psychologically pressure would-be defectors into staying, they are rechristening these leave-takers "alumni" and bidding them to boomerang back to the firm--if and when it's still hiring.

That's why Ernst & Young renamed its Office for Retention this month to the Center for the New Workforce. "People will have nine jobs by the time they are 30," says E&Y job czar Deborah K. Holmes. "We'd be delighted to be two or three of those jobs." And when skilled workers take those jobs, they'll do so with dot-com-style employment contracts in hand that protect them from mergers and downturns. After all, the Nasdaq may be in shreds, but if talented workers learned anything from the boom, it's that their careers--and offices--don't have to be.

By Michelle Conlin in New York

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