Originally created 04/03/00

Hokrein: Business seek work, leisure balance



How we work, and the way we think about work has changed dramatically in the past 20 years.

In my industry, more and more reporters work from their homes, filing stories on the road through laptops and wireless phones.

Even at my office (where, except for sports writers, we have few telecommuters) inter-office dynamics shape the way my colleagues and I spend our days.

We gather into teams to complete projects. We conduct electronic meetings through forwarded e-mails that zing back and forth between managers.

Even the physical makeup of the office has been transformed. Only a few of us have real, four-walled offices with actual doors.

But all those features are just surface changes. Deeper still are the undercurrents of real transformation: new understandings of the relationship between work and family, leisure and loyalty.

Workplace topics such as these will consume us in the next couple of decades.

A recent bulletin published by the Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan foundation promoting free speech and responsible in part for the Newseum in Arlington, Va., puts the onus on the business press to cover these topics with insight, sensitivity and urgency.

Why? Two reasons, says Robert H. Giles, senior vice president and executive director for the forum's Media Studies Center. First, people demand to know how to blend families and work in this new economy. Second, corporate profits are more and more directly affected by subjective influences such as customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction.

American workers have never had so much freedom, yet many of us feel pressured to work longer hours or accept restrictive work environments.

In other words, there's still a tug-of-war between what we want as employees and what our employers can offer, or are willing to offer.

Much of what we think we want from our jobs has been modeled by some employees of new economy companies, those jeans-wearing techno-kids who show up to work in sandals and jump ship when their positions no longer challenge them.

They command high salaries, quirky work spaces and flexible schedules.

And baby boomer managers are having trouble managing them.

But unlike earlier fears that Generation X is generally lazy with no direction, just the opposite is proving true. The younger workers put in long hours -- if they're challenged and have the freedom to direct their work.

They reap the benefits of a roaring economy, because companies know that talent is difficult to get nowadays.

I want to know what will happen when the economy turns sour and unemployment rises. Will corporate attitudes waiver? Will we go back to the old ways of inflexible managing and closely held decision making?

Consider stock ownership trends. More workers participate in company-sponsored stock ownership programs now, giving employees a stake in their employer's long-term profitability. Will fewer programs be available in a recession?

How do you know if your program is as good as the next company's?

All these questions need answers. All these topics need coverage.

As we approach a more comprehensive global economy, one that relies on information technology and the talent to use it, there's an even greater need for an understanding between the wage-earner and the wage giver.

Right now, the power of persuasion belongs to the employee.