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Downshifters Workers Are Scaling Back. Are You Ready

March 1, 1996
Related Topics: Work/Life Balance, Featured Article
There's a trend on the horizon so new you probably haven't heard about it yet. But you will. Believe it or not, there are some people who actually aren't worried about losing their jobs. In fact, some of them aren't particularly worried about having jobs, lots of money or even having ties to the civilized world. They're a new breed of workers who are neither mommy-trackers, daddy-trackers nor fast-trackers. They're called downshifters. And they want to slow down at work, so they can upshift in other areas of their lives.

It's not the same old workers just trying to juggle an increasingly heavier load—it's actually a group of people who want to bring the whole race at work down to a slower speed, so they don't have to "get a life." They can enjoy the ones they already have—at home and in the community.

For human resources professionals, downshifting can be interpreted as the next level beyond work-life balancing. It requires that companies be even more creative in their concept of what jobs are—and the time it takes to do them—and what it means to integrate business needs with employee motivation, talent and the pursuit of happiness.

And here's the kicker: You may have actually helped to create this particular breed of shuffle-footed workers. Over the past several years, as Corporate America has downsized, reorganized and reshuffled itself into oblivion, it has told employees: Here are all these nice work-family benefits you can take advantage of to balance your life.

On the other hand, we're going to work you so hard that they won't mean much.

What it boils down to is this: If employees are overworked, they can't balance the rest of their lives, no matter how many perks we give them. It's as if we've said: We'll give you a gourmet meal but no time to enjoy it. Talk about dangling a carrot on a stick.

These workers aren't angry, per se. They don't want you to figure out the meaning of life (or at least the meaning of their lives). They just don't fit into the traditional fast-track mold anymore. They're measuring success by their own standards. And they're demanding companies be more flexible in how they deal with them—and their greatest asset: their time. It was just a matter of time before these workers started drifting out to sea. It's going to take a pretty impressive tactical net to reel them back in.

What exactly is this downshifting thing, anyway?
There are two camps of downshifters: those who want to break out of the corporate mold—temporarily or permanently, and those who just want to work less.

Azriela Jaffe is a downshifter. A former human resources director for Lutheran Social Services of New England, Jaffe, 36, recently downshifted from a secure corporate job, to being a work-at-home mom in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. "I always found HR to be a meaningful career to me in parts, but, like any job, I would spend perhaps half my day doing what I loved to do and the other half of my day doing what my job description said I had to do," says Jaffe. Increasingly, what she found was that she loved the coaching and writing parts of HR, but not everything else that went with it.

And she could never quite get herself in sync with corporate timing. "I'm not somebody who molds well to an organizational schedule" she says. "I found it very difficult to constrict my natural flow, my natural way of being, to an organizational culture—and there was always tension between me and my employers because I got my job done really well, but I found my natural rhythm wasn't to be sitting in an office for eight hours, five days a week. I really wanted the freedom to be able to work when and where I chose."

A little more than a year ago, she left to pursue her passions. She founded a coaching and consulting firm that helps individuals reach personal and business success and authored her first book, "Honey, I Want To Start My Own Business, The Essential Guide for Couples on an Entrepreneurial Journey," which will be published in June.

"I'm not somebody who molds well to an organizational structure. I wanted the freedom to work where and when I chose."
Azriela Jaffe,
Recent Downshifter

Susan Truman, 34, another downshifter, left the corporate world in 1990 after having her first baby. At the time, Truman was a senior business administrator at TRW Inc. in a Los Angeles suburb, but wanted to stay home with her baby. So she resigned—and doesn't plan on returning to another corporate job for several years, if ever. "I quit at a time when the company was cutting back, so people were feeling insecure there anyway," says Truman. "Many people were glad to leave and move on to something else."

In addition to now being the mother of two, she's the president of her former college sorority and coordinates a local chapter of Mother's International for 109 women at her church. "All of them come from professional careers and have left business," she says.

And while the company had just started providing child care onsite, it wasn't enough to make her stay. "I definitely think there are women who would continue working if they were given a more flexible work schedule—like three days a week or something like that," she says. She and a co-worker tried a job-sharing arrangement, but it didn't work out. "When you're at a responsible level, they need somebody there all the time to handle the job."

When Truman and her husband bought a modest home a few years before their first baby arrived, it was in anticipation of her quitting and their being able to live on one income. It's one variation on a theme being called "voluntary simplicity" or "simple living." The Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, New York says voluntary simplicity is one of the top trends of the '90s. Experts say it's probably the most fundamental shift in lifestyles since the Depression. In some ways, voluntary simplicity somewhat resembles a Depression era lifestyle. These people are living in more modest homes, often driving used cars and sometimes even wearing thrift-store clothing. It's almost as if they're taking a vow of poverty. To them, consumerism is a dirty word.

At the core of the movement are values. People are valuing money and possessions less, and valuing time, health and peace of mind more. Regardless of the degree to which people scale back at work, pare down their lifestyles or relax the overall pace of their lives, downshifting is about people separating what they want from what they need to be happy.

"I know some people who actually are saying, 'I'm not going to work for a Fortune 500. I'm not going to get into that,'" says Andrea Saveri, a research director specializing in workplace issues and technology for the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, California. "It's happening for a number of reasons," says Saveri. "The economy, the kinds of jobs that are being created, what technology allows an organization to do, what technology allows an individual to do and all the burn-out. So you get this weird kind of convergence of factors."

Part of this trend may be a subtle reaction to modern advances. Humankind has taken two giant steps forward. Downshifters want to take a step back. "Technology can actually be used to help people downshift," says Saveri. Cell phones, fax machines, pagers and personal computers linked to remote networks certainly give people more options about when and where to work. But technology can, and does, create problems. Because people can work anywhere, they are working everywhere. Worse: They're expected to work everywhere. The result is that technology itself has increased, rather than decreased, the workload and the expectations. People literally get stuck in the virtual office, from which there's no respite. People are saying: Stop the world, I want to get off.

A November 1995 poll conducted by U.S. News & World Report found that 48% of Americans have done at least one of the following in the last five years: cut back their hours at work, declined or didn't seek a promotion, lowered their expectations for what they need out of life, reduced their commitments or moved to a community with a less hectic way of life.

The phenomenon is, in a word, hot. It has been on the covers of magazines such as Working Woman, and has been the subject of talk shows by Oprah and Phil Donahue. Books such as "Your Money or Your Life" by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, a primer on achieving financial independence and considered a handbook of the movement, are selling by the thousands.

And the trend doesn't seem to be generation-based. Granted, the front-runners of the movement are aging hippies in the Pacific Northwest who never lost their '60s yen for barefooted pleasures. But currently, a not-so-scary 4% of the country's 77 million baby boomers—men and women between the ages of 31 and 50—have already started living these simpler lives. A total of 15% of the boomer group (11.5 million people) are expected to join the movement by the year 2000. And no one knows how many others will join in.

But many non-boomers are also finding voluntary simplicity a happier way to live and a scaled back way to work. Companies increasingly are seeing people at various ages and stages of their lives wanting more time than money. "I definitely think people want more time outside of the work environment," says Vivian Johnston, director of human resources and employee relations for Campbell Soup Company based in Camden, New Jersey, which employs 26,000 workers in the United States and 16,000 more worldwide. "I guess it would depend on what the demographics in your organization look like, but I really haven't noticed any [particular] age associated with downshifting." The company has offered various flextime arrangements to employees for years, but has seen people use the time-off programs more in recent years.

And it isn't just the rank-and-file who are seeking time out of the office. Management guru Tom Peters is taking a sabbatical this year. And Anna Quindlen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist, left her job a year ago to write books full time at home.

One thing that does seem to separate downshifters from others who are less fortunate is they have embraced their power of choice. While some individuals are perhaps forced into lower-budget lifestyles through matters beyond their control—they're laid off or can't find full-time jobs—downshifters have found their voices and are using them to say they've had it with the corporate rat race. They don't need, or want, 80-plus-hours-a-week jobs. They may not even want 40-hour jobs. And they don't mind giving up big chunks of their paychecks to change their situation either.

They've dared to ask the bigger question: Who am I and what's my life all about? Some are saying: I like my job, but why am I working so hard? Why do I have a big home, fancy cars and high-tech toys but no time to enjoy them? Or, they're saying: I hate my job. Life's too short to do what I hate—I'm leaving for greener pastures, or I'm going to work less here so I can have more time for these other interests over there.

Short of helping people find their true meaning in life, companies are forced to conform by giving people the time and flexibility to pursue their interests outside work. And companies are trying to make work as meaningful a pursuit as any other.

Quality of time vs. quantity of time.
The issue at stake is time. Workers want more personal time. But you need them on the job. It's a struggle to see who'll win. The struggle is a particularly modern dilemma.

"The American family subsidized Corporate America during the '50s and '60s with women staying home and literally doing a lot of unpaid work and allowing a male workforce to work their butts off," says Saveri. Now, some men and women in the workforce are saying: Why am I working my butt off doing something I don't enjoy and making more money than I really need?

"Downshifting refers to people shifting out of what you might term a single focus—a corporate focus—and into a more balanced-life focus. That's not so much downshifting as it is shifting. It's more of a focusing on what success means to [them], rather than on [how] somebody [else] defines success. I think there's a lot of people reflecting on that—what will be meaningful success to them—and then trying to work out a life pattern that fits that," says Eric Lane, director of worldwide staffing for Mountain View, California-based Silicon Graphics Inc., a leading manufacturer of visual computing systems.

With a workforce of 6,300 employees worldwide (4,500 in the United States), Silicon Graphics delivers three-dimensional graphics, color, audio, video and real-time technologies to the technical, scientific and creative computing marketplaces. Founded in 1982, the firm has doubled its revenue in the past two years, from $1 billion to more than $2 billion. With operations worldwide, the company works hard to attract the best people in the industry. Providing an environment in which creative collaboration flourishes is central to its strategy. Its culture is marked by an open communications style that embraces change and encourages risk taking.

"We're definitely seeing people who are not only interested in their careers, but also are interested in being a whole person—having their family lives, [their work lives] and their community lives," says Lane. "I personally was elected to a school board here—59 schools, 34,000 kids. I have two daughters who are in the school district, so I'm dealing with that same kind of balance thing myself. And I know a lot of people here at Silicon Graphics who are doing the same thing. They're involved in their communities. They've got a family or a family life. Or they're taking care of [an aging] parent. And the whole thing about making a meaningful contribution to people around them is an important aspect of who they are," says Lane.

In fact, a January '96 article in The Wall St. Journal explains that "Rocky" Rhodes, a co-founder and chief engineer at the firm, has cut back to a part-time schedule—after years of working seven-day weeks. A sticky note on his refrigerator lists his and his wife's priorities—God, family, exercise and work—and speaks volumes about what downshifting is all about.

Lane says Silicon Graphics gives its managers a lot of flexibility in creating an environment that works for people rather than trying to fit people into a preset mold. "It's a talent focus," says Lane. The firm optimizes that talent focus by not having firm policies such as "thou shalt telecommute." Rather, it allows managers to work with individuals on helping them succeed. Whether that means letting workers shift their schedules so they can pick up their kids from school or working out a job description that makes sense for a woman coming back from maternity leave, so be it. "The key issue in a company like Silicon Graphics is access to great talent. And the flexibility around how to best access that talent is what we give managers a lot of leeway in," says Lane. "I'm not convinced that a policy is the trigger for that. I think the ability to have an organization with managers who can be trusted is the first step."

An idea that's being tossed around in work-life management circles is having employees manage their own time. Throw out timecards. Forget about punching in and out. Simply pay for outcomes, not face time. "Instead of having traditionally structured work schedules, it's based on output, not so much how much time you spend in an office," says Madeleine Baker, manager of work-life strategy for Fort Wayne, Indiana-based Lincoln National Corp. So far, Lincoln is just considering the idea along with other forward-thinking companies in the United States. "Until we get the nitty-gritties all fine-tuned, it would be alarming for me to [make the blanket statement] that employees could be hired and then come and go as they please," she adds. "That would be quite challenging and alarming to managers."

While there may be constraints—legal and practical—around implementing such an idea, some variation of it may be the wave of the future for certain types of work and certain types of workers. For instance, some clothing manufacturers already allow frontline teams to manage their own time. Employees still need to turn out a certain number of pieces, but how they achieve that number is completely up to them. At the other end of the scale, exempt employees essentially have managed their own time since the concept was created. What's new is giving employees the flexibility to scale back on all fronts, if they want to, yet meeting the objectives of the company.

A more adult view of employees, work and time.
Downshifting is causing organizations to rethink the very nature of jobs: What's a full-time job? What's a part-time job? What's an as-needed job? What does non-exempt mean? What does exempt mean? Exempt from what? From being asked to work as long and as hard as it takes to get the job done? And who defines when the job's done? If we aren't paying by the hour, what are the measurements by which we are paying? These are questions worth considering, because the jobs of the future probably won't look like the jobs of today. Even companies themselves won't look the same. Reorganization has seen to that.

Silicon Graphics doesn't focus much energy on career tracking and career pathing because its industry is moving so fast. "For one thing, many careers [in our industry] didn't exist a year ago," says Lane. "So if you wanted to be a Web master three years ago, people would have looked at you like, so what?" Instead of trying to steer people into certain career paths, Silicon Graphics focuses on providing people with flexibility in combining their learning and interests.

"If you focus too much on the needs of the individual only, then you don't balance what's really important [for the business]."
Eric Lane,
Director of Worldwide Staffing;
Silicon Graphics Inc.

People can switch to other departments (or work on projects in other departments) that blend their skills and interests. "For example, if someone was interested in the education market and they were in technology, they could get involved in a product line that was dealing with the education market," says Lane. It helps them integrate their work with what they think is important in life. People no longer compartmentalize their lives. Now they can combine work they're passionate about and get a paycheck.

Such an idea follows in the footsteps of the empowerment trend. Take Lincoln National, for example. It allows people to map out their own individual career-development processes, but gives them the tools (training and rotational assignments) with which to accomplish their personal objectives. "It comes down to telling employees: 'You need to set the course in accomplishing your objectives, and these are the resources we make available to you,'" says Baker.

People just want to be seen as adults, capable of managing their own careers and their own lives. And they want the freedom to manage their work as they see fit. That's why people are flocking to companies with less stressful, and more open environments like Chicago-based Morningstar Inc., an 11-year-old company that produces 15 publications and products giving data and analysis on various investments. "A lot of people have come to us because of our [more relaxed] lifestyle, growth opportunity and more dynamic atmosphere. People are leaving those bigger, bureaucratic and more stressful [corporate] environments," says Bevin Desmond, Morningstar's recruiting coordinator.

Morningstar, which employs 350 workers, also offers a six-week paid sabbatical after people have completed four years of service. "It's something that was put in place to reward people for the time they spend here, to give them a chance to breathe and perhaps to get perspective on their work and life. We feel like it's pretty valuable for people to come back from their sabbatical with a new perspective," says Desmond.

"Part of the nice thing at Morningstar is that there aren't set office hours [for individuals]," she adds. While the office does have certain core hours, staff members can basically come and go as they see fit. And it tries to make the practice as fair as possible throughout its many departments. Obviously, customer service representatives have to be there to take phone calls during certain hours, but work groups can schedule their own hours within that framework.

"People here work the hours they need to complete their work," says Desmond. "They don't feel funny about taking an afternoon off or staying home one day with their child or deciding to take a week off. People don't get second glances and their commitment to their work isn't questioned."

You'll need to be more flexible than ever.
Corporate America already has made huge concessions toward work-life balancing by providing myriad flex options such as telecommuting, job sharing, part-timing, flextime and sabbaticals. But downshifters are demanding even more innovative solutions to modern life's dilemmas. And companies are beginning to respond with even more creative ideas.

First Tennessee Bank based in Memphis, Tennessee employs 8,000 workers in 30 states. A year and a half ago it started allowing employees to rearrange work schedules and hours—and even restructure their jobs—based on people's personal needs. "We've really tried to build workplace flexibility into each of our departments and use it not only as a tool to improve employee satisfaction, but also [to improve] customer satisfaction," says Pat Brown, vice president and manager for First Tennessee's Family Matters program.

For example, the company cut the number of days the ARP department needed to reconcile customer accounts from 10 to four, as a direct result of flexible scheduling. Following a schedule they helped set, employees now work extended hours early in the month, when the load is heaviest, and take a day off during the slow period at the end of the month. "What they really wanted was time—a day off during the week to take care of everything from running errands to spending time with their children," says Brown.

The bank also gives workers who've been with the firm for at least one year another innovative flex benefit called prime time. People can reduce their hours and still maintain full benefit coverage. They can cut back to 32 hours or even down to 20 (a true part-time job). Most are using the option for six months to two years. "We do have employees starting to take advantage of it," says Brown. Working mothers particularly like it. They use it to ease back to work after a maternity leave or to work reduced hours while their children are young. But the firm is also seeing older workers use it to transition into retirement—by slowing work hours gradually. And it isn't just frontline workers—some managers also are looking at cutting back on their hours.

Such flexibility obviously creates staffing challenges for management. What's important is for employees and their managers and team members to work together to come up with workable schedules for each individual. And the jobs themselves must be scaled back along with the hours. But that can be difficult without the department or company incurring additional expense.

"The area that we're going to struggle with the most is probably with people with managerial responsibilities," says Brown. "I would rather reduce someone's schedule down to 24 hours, versus losing the person totally. That's the decision you're having to make. It's not, can I force them to still work 40-plus hours? We're doing this because we want to retain folks—that's very much our focus," says Brown. "It's a challenge the firm is ready—and willing—to deal with. This is our fifth year of record profits, so we feel we're staying profitable even though we've been very flexible," Brown explains. Campbell Soup Company also sees many professional and managerial level workers wanting—and arranging—to work part-time hours instead of full-time. The firm is ready with options when the questions are asked.

Of course there's more than one way to be flexible. Many companies allow employees to vary their schedules weekly or monthly. Silicon Graphics gives sabbaticals for U.S. workers who want them. Every four years, people can take six weeks off—paid. They can combine the time with vacation time for total leaves of two or three months. Lane says some people prefer to take big chunks of time off, rather than say, coming in three days and being off for four. "So, some of the issues around balance can be intensity of balance," says Lane. "I think some of the things about what balance means could be cliche and could be a lot different in terms of how people really want to do it."

Some companies aren't afraid to let go of workers for as long as it takes. Organizations—like Vancouver City Savings Credit Union (VanCity) in Vancouver, British Columbia—are taking the long view of the benefits of extended leaves. VanCity allows workers to participate in what they call a return-to-work program. Workers can take off for one to three years (unpaid). Since February 1991, approximately 80 people of its 1,100 member workforce have taken time off using this program. About 67 of those workers have been women. Although only a few people took advantage of the program in its first few years, people have participated more in recent years.

"We're an organization that recognizes that people have to find a balance between work and family, and develop themselves as people," says Linda Heep, a personnel officer for VanCity, Canada's largest credit union and a two-time winner of the Financial Post's "100 Best Companies To Work for in Canada" award. The company sees employees using the program to take time off to care for young children, to go back to school, to travel or to pursue other personal interests. "They need to take that time out without jeopardizing having a position with the company," she says. Although the company doesn't guarantee the same position or previous salary to employees who take this extended leave, they are guaranteed a job when they come back. "To us, they're valuable employees and potentially, they'll come back as even more valuable because they've gone through different types of life experiences," says Heep.

So that they keep up with technology, policy and product changes, employees must return to work for two, two-week periods each year that they're out. They can do that on weekends, during the summer or all at once, depending on what works best for them.

Experts say companies need to follow VanCity's lead and change their concepts of what sabbaticals and leaves of absence are—that down time isn't necessarily slack time. It's a time for personal renewal and to take care of the other business of one's life that can't be accomplished on weekends only.

Is HR ready for downshifting?
"It's not so much whether HR's ready for it. It's what the business and what managers can support," says Lane. In some departments, flexibility is limited. Manufacturing plant workers probably can't telecommute, for instance, because they can't take their work home or to the beach on laptops. But they might be able to scale their hours back.

"There are functions and certain environments that are more inclined toward certain formats of flexibility. So what we're looking at is how do you make that equitable in an organization and make individuals feel it's equitable?" asks Silicon Graphic's Lane. "That's something that has to be dealt with as a manager and dealt with within the comfort zone of the team."

And does the trend concern HR professionals? "It doesn't concern me, because in a corporation the size of ours, you always have people who are coming in and out of the workforce anyway," says Campbell Soup's Johnston. People leave the workforce for short or long periods all the time. "We've tried to create an infrastructure that will allow managers to work with the work-life balance [challenge]," says Johnston.

Whether it means people transitioning back from maternity leave by working part-time or people wanting to telecommute because of medical limitations, it's important to give people options.

"It comes down to telling employees: You need to set the course in managing your objectives."
Madeleine Baker,
Work-Life Strategy; Lincoln National Corp.

Companies must rethink workloads when people work reduced hours. "That's where we step back and ask ourselves: Will this [reduced schedule] work for the business? Can we work it so that a person can reduce his or her time? And, are there ways we can all work smarter, because it's not realistic to think that somebody is going to do a full-time job in half the time. So, we do make adjustments as necessary," says Johnston.

Usually, Campbell managers agree ahead of time on the length of flextime arrangements and reevaluate how well they're working at six-month intervals. "For instance, in a job-share arrangement in my own department, we've agreed that we will review the situation in six months—not only from a business standpoint, but also from the employees' points of view. Is this really working out the way they thought it would? Are they happy working with a scaled down employment situation? Have their needs changed? Do they need to come back full-time?" asks Johnston. "We're really flexible—but we have these milestones just to make sure we're staying on top of keeping a balance for everyone.

"What I would say to other HR professionals is to be open to the [flexibility] concept and give it a try because there are many rewards in it—not just for the employee, but also for the corporation—that aren't necessarily visible up front," says Johnston. "So I would just say, 'Keep an open mind and give it a try where you can. It's clearly not appropriate in every situation.'"

Where do you draw the line? Lane recommends thinking ahead about what the business needs to accomplish. "If you get away from why you're in business—from the standpoint of growing the business—and focus too much on the needs only of the individual, then you don't balance what's really important [for the business]," he says. If the business folds, then there won't be any jobs and the issue of whether somebody wants to work 32 hours instead of 40 will be a moot point.

"It's that delicate balance between the business and what needs to get done to stay competitive and be successful and the people you have behind it to make it all happen," says Johnston. "If you can balance that creatively, then I don't see any problem. But if that balance gets tipped one way or the other, then I think we would have to scale back on our creativity."

Lane says companies probably won't go out advertising that they're looking for people to work only 30 hours a week or fewer. And they probably won't have 30 hours or less as the regular workweek format. But they are needing to be more flexible than ever—especially with those individuals who are highest on the talent chain. Where talent is tight (like in the Silicon Valley) employees essentially drive the process—not the employer. You may need them more than they need you.

Certainly, you can't keep people working for you if they don't want to work at all. But if they have chosen to give you some of their precious time, your challenge is to figure out how to keep people from drifting away further. "It goes back to the idea of how do you best create a work environment that allows people to feel the most dedicated, committed and effective that they can feel," says Lane. Studies show that the more fulfilling you can make the workplace, the more commitment you can get from people, the more likely they are to stay and the more value they'll feel from the whole relationship.

Money alone isn't enough anymore. "Now more than ever, [people have a] life-enrichment view of what a job is. [Their job] needs to not take away from [their] development, but actually allow for more complete development," says Lane. And, you have to be careful about hiring the right people in the first place.

Lane tells the story of Picasso. Picasso loved to paint in a blue room. That's where he did his best work. "What would happen if a typical corporation hired Picasso, is they'd say, 'We know you like to paint in a blue room, but we do yellow. You'll get used to it.' At Silicon Graphics, we'd say, 'Well, we don't have any blue rooms, but how could we get one?' If you set up an environment that really believes in accommodating the talents and needs of an individual, then that framework gets pretty creative. If you do yellow rooms and you hire blue talent, it doesn't work as well," says Lane.

In fact, you're no longer just competing with other companies for the best talent anymore. You're competing with campouts, kayaking trips, spiritual awareness seminars, community fundraisers and white sandy beaches. While it may be more challenging for managers, it very well could be a more civilized way to work. And, in the end, an even more civilized way to live.

Personnel Journal, March 1996, Vol. 75, No. 3, pp. 62-76.

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