The Tug Of More

Businesses need productivity gains as they struggle to rise out of recession. Can they get them without wearing out a fully extended workforce?
Too bad I Love Lucy isn't still around to do a number on today's technology. Remember the famous candy-factory scene in which Lucy and Ethel--overwhelmed by the conveyor-belt automation of the day--stuff chocolates into their mouths and uniforms? Imagine what a juggling act the queen of comedy could do with a cell phone, laptop, BlackBerry, and PDA.

Then again, such a scene might hit a little too close to home to get a chuckle from a lot of working Americans. Many feel they have no more to give to the job in terms of time and energy, even as employers search for ways that technology can let companies get more from fewer employees in a shaky economy. True, there are signs of a recovery--but businesses will likely be slow to add staff, so for now, the goal is to get more out of existing resources. "It's a 50-hour week. If you want the job, then you'll do it," says Eileen Applebaum, co-president of the Center for Designing Work Wisely, a nonprofit research firm.

And people are doing it--but no longer because they're driven by the dot-com-inspired ethic of "work now, get rich, play later" from the boom days, when E-business projects and stock options kept employees at their desks at all hours. Now, competition is more about bouncing back from the recession, or just surviving, than about dominating a market. The job jitters and pressure for greater productivity mean that many people feel heightened tension in the workplace. Take IT professionals as an example: More than half of IT workers and more than 60% of IT managers say their jobs are more stressful than a year ago, according to preliminary findings from InformationWeek Research's annual salary survey, which will be released later this month. Less than 5% find them less stressful.

Business technology complicates the issue in the workforce, offering both promise and pain. Many economists, chief among them Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, say IT will help deliver the productivity improvement that can help us out of the current slump. IT managers are feeling better about that possibility: The March 2002 InformationWeek IT Confidence Index, which tracks the business outlook of IT executives, is up 45.5% for the first quarter--its first positive change in a year. Yet many of the tools designed to make workers more productive--giving them more mobility and access to more information--can also lead to more pressure and longer hours. The challenge for IT managers is to quickly capitalize on the opportunities in a world of tighter sales, staffs, and budgets, without burning out the workforce that remains.

GMAC Commercial Mortgage uses a number of technologies it hopes will increase worker productivity. One is software it developed that lets employees use the telephone to check their E-mail, tasks for the day, and meeting schedules. When users want to follow up with messages, they can connect automatically by phone to the company's virtual private network.

Narij Patel -- Photo by Bill Cramer

Mobile technology such as that in use at GMAC Commercial Mortgage makes people more productive but also leads to longer hours, says CIO Patel, seen here at the company's on-site dry-cleaning service.
CIO Narij Patel uses the system on his drive to work and says it saves him 30 minutes at the office--though his long days haven't gotten any shorter. "It's doing more work in the same time," he says. Clearly, other GMAC Commercial Mortgage workers are doing the same: Employee use of the system spikes during drive time, and even Patel was surprised to learn that the highest usage comes during the lunch hour.

Such mobile technology makes workers more productive, Patel says, but also leads to people working more hours. "Americans naturally want to work more," he says. "Our culture is very driven." Patel realized how much work he does from home when watching his wife teach their 2-year-old son using flash cards. "When the card with a picture of a phone would come up, ... he'd say 'Dad,'" Patel says. But Patel doesn't mind that remote technology means he works more, since it gives him more flexibility in accomplishing his goals. "I wouldn't have it any other way," he says. "Even though I'm working more, it made my life better."

That's not to say that more work necessarily yields increased productivity. There's a hidden cost when managers don't enforce something close to a 40-hour workweek, says Robert Egan, VP of information technology at lumber and paper company Boise Cascade Corp. People on 40-hour workweeks are more productive than their long-hours counterparts, Egan contends. His theory is that people routinely working 10-or 12-hour days will work more slowly, pace themselves, and carve out time for personal tasks. "If you know you're going to be there till 8 anyway," Egan says, "why work diligently throughout the day?"

While the lean economy is pressuring many businesses to somehow deliver more with less, Egan is cautious about adding IT tools in search of quick return on investment. One way he tries to keep a lid on any one person's workload in the IT department is simplicity--using as few technologies as possible. "The advantage of having fewer technologies is that the staff members can back each other up and that the skills can be learned more deeply, which is key to stabilizing systems," he says. "The alternative is lots of technologies, superficial skill levels, and islands of expertise. That's the recipe for long hours, a frustrated workforce, and dissatisfied users." Boise Cascade's IT strategy hasn't changed much since the E-business boom days, he says; the Boise, Idaho, company continues to focus on high-priority projects that can help customers and cut operating costs.

Robert Egan -- Photo by Sacha Lecca

People who work 40-hour weeks are more productive, Egan says.
Egan knows that even with a disciplined approach, certain tasks, such as IT-system upgrades, must be done outside of business hours, and so he doesn't accept a clock-watcher mentality. In those cases, he strives for balance. For a recent business-recovery test, 20 IT staffers went to Philadelphia while others remained in support roles at the home office. Everyone had to work the entire weekend, so Egan urged them to take a four-day weekend over the next two or three months. The payoff from this approach: productivity gains from less training and better teamwork. Egan projects that Boise's IT turnover will be 2% this year, and even during the Internet heyday when job-hopping rose, the company's IT-turnover rate was a mere 3%.

One area in which balancing productivity and lifestyle issues gets complicated is telecommuting. The idea of telecommuting isn't new, but companies still have a long way to go to fully exploit the benefits of a networked economy. Indianapolis pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Co. lets all its knowledge workers work from home occasionally, and a formal telework program lets a smaller number of employees keep their primary offices at home. Such telecommuting generally had been considered a concession to work-life balance, but these days, the company is also thinking about it as a means to drive productivity, says Candi Lange, director of workforce partnering. "We bring in such smart people who are responsible for so much important work in the company," she says. "Why not let them control their own schedules as well?"

Lange cites a flex-time pilot program the company is using with a group of scientific writers, in which the employees structure their workweeks to fit their individual work styles. "Writers reported they were working just as hard and just as long, but they didn't feel overworked," she says. The key to getting management support was that the company sees evidence that the program works: It measures success by the fact that articles are coming in complete and on time. That backs up Lange's hunch that the writers would be more productive with flex time.

These company initiatives are rooted in a basic management philosophy that starts with an assumption that employees are hardworking and dedicated, not lazy and inclined to slack off, Lange says. Making the programs work isn't easy, though. It involves a heavy dose of managerial work, and in some cases, a shift in management philosophy. "What we need to do is to get managers focused on results," Lange says.

Telecommuting programs in particular can offer another unexpected benefit, says Pat Roque, an instructor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, who researches telework. For telecommuting to succeed, a company must set realistic goals and expectations for teleworkers and managers, and establish a regular, frequent schedule for communication. "When some companies did this for their teleworkers, they ended up realizing that they didn't even have that in place for any of their other workers," Roque says. "It forced them to come up with policies, making them better companies."

If technology has the ability to boost productivity and give workers flexibility, why the stress on the workforce? Applebaum, of the Center for Designing Work Wisely, contends it's because the same technologies that promise flexibility keep blurring the boundaries between home and office, in part because of a demanding corporate culture. "Provide employees with the technology and expect them to be 'on' at all hours of the day or night, responding to calls, E-mail and so on," she says.

On the other hand, workers also bear some responsibility for managing their work and personal time. Business leaders can support work-life balance in the corporate culture, but that won't cut it if employees don't set boundaries of their own. Ask author, philosopher, and corporate consultant Sam Keen what he thinks about the problem of overwork, and he replies, "Overwork isn't a problem. It's a religion. Corporations have become the new demigod," and workers and managers do everything they can to appease its appetite.

That's what Ray Rasmussen found himself doing until recently, and he's now relying on technology to reclaim a life outside the office. "Late 1999 and early 2000 was a fabulous time for the tech industry, but a brutal one on my family life," says Rasmussen, recalling his executive position in mergers and acquisitions at Deloitte Consulting. For one project, he caught a red-eye flight from Seattle to Pittsburgh every Sunday night for a full year, returning to his family on Friday evenings before leaving again two days later. "My wife says I missed every important event--my son breaking his arm, my daughter starting high school," he says. "To hold my family together, I had to get off the road."

Rasmussen now works as chief operating officer of a 120-person public-relations and marketing firm, MarketFitz, in which nearly every staff member works remotely, in home offices or at client sites in or near Seattle and Portland, Ore. For workforce management, MarketFitz uses software from Portera Systems Inc. The hosted online application tracks work hours and offers a virtual meeting place, with knowledge-management and document-sharing capabilities. Employees also use the typical tools of the home-office trade--notebook computer, telephone, Internet, and fax. Two small corporate sites provide conference rooms and an office presence, but workers are more likely to hold meetings at Starbucks.

The remote-office arrangement cuts office-leasing and other property expenses dramatically. And unlike most typical communications agencies, which pay employees annual salaries, the company pays almost all its staff hourly rates based on billable time. Since MarketFitz absorbs extra costs when projects go overbudget, the hourly-pay arrangement gives the company a bottom-line incentive to control employees' workloads. "The biggest prevention to overwork we have is overtime pay," CEO and president Heather Fitzpatrick says. These days, Rasmussen works in his backyard with a LAN connection when the weather is nice, and from his home office indoors when it's not. He's satisfied with his career move. And what of the 10-hour days and cross-country commute? "For me, personally, I'd rather not go back," he says.

A more flexible work environment can go a long way toward easing workplace pressures. Baxter International Inc. has been tapping collaborative technology such as electronic-meeting software so its employees will work together more often without having to factor in the cost and lost time of travel. "One of the nice things that fall out of that is people can stay home instead of getting on an airplane and spending several nights away from home," says Glen Jurmann, senior manager of internal Web communications at the Deerfield, Ill., medical-products and services company, which has $7.66 billion a year in sales. Such flexibility is critical to Baxter, which has made work-life balance a priority within its "sustainability" mission: an effort to balance the interests of employees and other stakeholders with its business goals, the environment, and the communities in which it operates.

Baxter is replacing its collaborative software, which it developed in-house, to make things even better for employees. It's buying software from an outside vendor, which the company declines to identify, so that anyone can set up a collaborative Web site as an instant workspace to hash out problems, manage projects, participate in job training, or simply share information. By contrast, the homegrown app requires an IT staffer to set it up. Jurmann admits the technology was chosen with the primary goal of increasing collaboration but says the reduction in travel has been one of the welcome byproducts.

But technology isn't always the answer. E-mail in particular can become an obstacle to getting the day's work completed. American Express Financial Advisors Inc. in Minneapolis has been trying to help 250 managers in the call center take greater control of their workday with one simple move: Change how they use E-mail. Instead of having them check it when messages come in, leadership consultant Sheri Moe has been coaching managers to treat E-mail like an appointment that they track in the same way as other meetings, through company-issued Franklin Covey daily planners. Most managers now log on at set times--when they get in, midmorning, lunch, midafternoon, and day's end--and turn off the audio notification to remove the constant reminder of E-mail's presence. Managers report big changes in the six months since the effort began, Moe says. They find they're getting more work done, and they simply feel more satisfied at the end of the day. "It's so easy to get sucked in to E-mail while at work," she says.

Jan VanOstrand says she and her employer have the work-life balance right, but she admits it could've turned out another way. As a computer specialist for The Lee Co., a manufacturer in Westbrook, Conn., she's responsible for the technology needs of a group of 150 people. When she first arrived at the company, VanOstrand remembers, she had "a fire in the belly" for her career at any cost. But her managers took a longer-term view that helped her create separation between work and home. As VanOstrand puts it, the corporate philosophy is "Do your job here. Leave home there, and the job here, and that'll be fine. You can't mix the two."

She says she's intensely focused at work from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.--but when she leaves, there's no pager, cell phone, or PDA following her out the door. Her home PC is reserved for online shopping and E-mail correspondence with a daughter who lives in Indiana. The grandmother of three now has time for art classes and vacations, including a recent two-week motorcycle trip through the West. She says her approach even helps her be more disciplined at conferences and training sessions, where she looks with bemusement at her peers. "As soon as there's a break, they're on the phone, and during the sessions they're on their pagers," she says. "How much are they really getting out of the conference? It's counterproductive."

Sounds nice. But businesses like Lee and workers like VanOstrand and Rasmussen don't have much company. In the current environment of an uncertain economy and a dicey job market, there's less discussion about how to balance the pressing demand for productivity growth with the lifestyle needs of employees--or about where technology may fit in. But there's a lot of juggling.

-- With Beth Bacheldor and Elisabeth Goodridge

Illustration by Dave Plunkert
Photo of Narij Patel by Bill Cramer
Photo of Robert Egan by Sacha Lecca