Experimenting With the Shape of Work

At the moment, these strategies are a way to deal with the reality that there’s not enough work to go around. But they set the stage for something we’ve needed to change for a long time. They are helping us let go of the assumption that every job has to be an 8 to 5, all day every day effort at a location determined by the company.

Yes, the assorted reductions and changes in work arrangements are needed for the cost savings right now. But wring all you can out of the experience on a deeper and broader basis. They are offering a window into how work might be better shaped even in good times. The winners will use that window to see the future.

Why? Three cultural changes are moving quietly into the forefront that will make new approaches to work design a key part of any company’s success once the economy swings back into the growth part of the cycle.


The “career mystique” refers to the pact between employee and company that’s been entrenched since the 1950’s. In that scenario, employees sacrificed family life and personal pursuits for the company with the expectation that pay increases and advancement would follow. “Work” had the highest priority and the company usually got more than a forty-hour workweek from committed employees in anticipation of “future” benefits-like promotions.

Company loyalty has been waning since the first mass layoffs in the 1980’s, but the immensity and breadth of the current round is giving it a giant shove. Why give up the rest of your life for an outfit that might let you go tomorrow? Why put all your efforts into a company that might go under and suck your 401(k) along with it? Employee loyalty will need to be built on more than maybe’s from here on.


The numbers don’t lie. There are 78 million baby boomers followed by 40 million Gen X’ers. Even with 70 million in the Gen Y population after that, getting the work done will mean coaxing some of those boomers to stay in the workforce into their seventies and beyond.

In a 2005 study by Merrill Lynch, 83% of the 2300+ boomers surveyed said they expected to work in retirement. But only 16% wanted to work a traditional full-time job. Some want to start their own businesses and some want traditional part-time work, but the surprising number is that 42% want to cycle in and out of work. That’s not the way we currently have work designed. But companies who can find ways to offer that to talented older workers will have a competitive edge when the economy heats up again.


Before the economy went into this swan dive, employers were worrying about how to attract the brightest and best of Gen Y. This generation has been more insistent on work/life balance in their employment choices from the get-go. The “fresh new idea” was the Results Only Work Environment, where as long as the work got accomplished timely, the employer didn’t dictate when and where it got done.

Knowledge workers can literally take the job on the road and do it perfectly well. All three generations would gain from that flexibility. But it would be nice if employers could test the arrangement before they committed to it whole hog. Same deal with other work design innovations.

Work design changes we’d never have considered in good times are now in place and can teach us a great deal about new ways to shape work. Reduced hours are commonplace now. Why not shape those reduced hours to create lifestyle benefits that enhance your value as an employer when the economy improves?