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Eight Days a Week

September 1, 2000
Related Topics: Ergonomics and Facilities, Work/Life Balance, Scheduling, Featured Article
When I was growing up back in the 1960s, no one had ever heard of a 24/7 economy.Offices pretty much ran 8 to 5. Retail outfits were a little more flexible, but even therare businesses that opened their doors seven days a week shuttered their windows bymidnight. The closest thing we had to large-scale 24/7 operations were the factories whereassembly lines ran round the clock to keep pace with America’s post-war prosperity.

My father worked at one of those factories. Second trick. And for his entire workinglife, he punched in three o’clock in the afternoon, coming home sometime aftermidnight. Yes, we saw each other on weekends and during the summer months, but it wasnever enough for us to make much of a connection. He knew that and I knew that. It neveroccurred to either of us to question the arrangement, however. In those days a man took ajob and he worked when he was told to.

Those were different times.

Like me, Bill Sirois is the son of Depression-era parents. As a senior vice presidentand the chief operating officer at Circadian Technologies, a consulting firm based inCambridge, Massachusetts, he has observed first hand a change in America’s attitudetoward work, and the effect it is having on American business.

“In my generation,” he says, “work came first, before God and family. Tohave a job was a big deal. For us, it was get educated to have a good job, work hard, dogood. But we have brought up our children differently. The kids today were brought uphaving just about everything. It’s getting increasing difficult to find people whowant to work shift work. Most people want to work the traditional hours and live thetraditional lifestyle.”

This is bad news for human resources professionals. We live increasingly in a 24-hour,seven-day-a-week world. Factories that teetered on the edge of extinction in the mid-1970sare humming again. And, more important, the globalization of the world’s economy,abetted by a revolution in computer technology, has made the notion of a 40-hour work weekincreasingly anachronistic. The week lasts a full 168 hours, and companies thataren’t prepared to stay open for each and every one of them do so only at their ownperil.

“It’s linked to the Internet,” says Richard Coleman, president of theColeman Consulting Group and author of The 24-Hour Business (AMACOM, 1995). “Behindthis fantasy of you sitting at your computer and clicking on something in the eveninghours and expecting it to show up at your door the next morning, there are more and morepeople having to work behind the point and click. While you’re sleeping, someone hasto get the order, pull the product, ship it, take your calls. There are more and more jobsin that sector.”

We have, then, two fundamental trends pulling our businesses in two differentdirections. And businesses have responded to the challenge in two related, if distinctlydifferent, ways.

The first response has been to add shifts to the traditional work week. The other hasbeen a sometimes subtle, sometimes heavy-handed, effort to wring longer hours out oftraditional day workers. In an economy where the unemployment rate has hung tenaciously atthe 4-percent level, both approaches have forced businesses to take uncommonly creativesteps to make sure that staffing levels are adequate to cover the 24/7 work week.

Evidence for the growing importance of shift work is largely anecdotal. The most recentdata from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (1997) indicates that 82.9 percent of full-timewage and salary workers have regular daytime schedules. In service-oriented occupations,however, the percentage of Americans doing shift work rises to 55.1 percent for thoseemployed in the protective services, 42 percent in the food services, and 27 percent foroperators, fabricators and laborers. By 1997, 16.8 percent of full-time American workerswere clocking in for shifts other than normal daytime hours.

If Americans in general are voicing a preference for spending more time with friendsand family, how are the managers of the nation’s call centers, warehouses, andfactories filling positions on the increasingly crucial evening and overnight shifts?

To some extent, they’re doing what employers have always done. They’re payinghourly premiums for work on the late shifts and they’re courting the people who mightnaturally see some advantage in burning the midnight oil: night owls, students, andspouses who need to spend their days at home to balance out child care responsibilitieswithin the family.

But as attractive as these candidates may be, they make up a small percentage of theAmerican labor pool. So companies are being forced to look beyond the traditionalcandidates for night and evening work, and the challenge has forced them to reconsidermany of their assumptions about the nature of shift work and the people they hire toperform it.

What is most significant, perhaps, is that progressive companies are no longerapproaching shift work as an all-or-nothing-at-all proposition. They are using creativescheduling techniques to make a stint in the off-hours seem preferable to the traditionaldaytime grind.

“If you go to the average person and start out saying, ‘How would like towork weekends? How would you like to work nights?’ generally, the response rate wouldbe very, very low,” says Richard Coleman. “What you’ve got to ask is,‘How would you like a schedule that gives you 20 weeks of vacation? And, by the way,you’re going to be covering some weekends.’ People will say, ‘That soundsinteresting.’”

According to Coleman, formulating the right schedule is the key to meeting businessneeds, while at the same enticing workers to cover hours that would normally send themscurrying for the door. The idea is so attractive, in fact, that even a number of mature,tradition-bound industries are giving it a try.

The railroad industry, for example, has been operating on an around-the-clock schedulefor well over a hundred years. And evolving labor agreements have created a complex web ofscheduling priorities that have proven resistant to change. Still, the complaint mostoften voiced by railway employees is that they have to live with the uncertainty of whenthey will be called out to work a train crew. Scheduling here, essentially, consists ofmatching a list of employees with a list of trains. Because trains can be delayed andemployees can opt out of the list for a variety of reasons, employees waiting to beassigned to crew seldom know exactly when the call will come. The problem is even worsefor employees assigned to so-called “extra boards,” because they are the peoplewho are called to fill in when vacancies open up on the primary lists, or “poolboards.”

The Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Company has been working with CircadianTechnologies to find ways to remedy this problem.

“We find that the number one priority for our employees is wanting to know whenthey’re going to be off, so they can plan activities with their families,” saysGeorge Smallwood, Burlington Northern’s assistant vice president of manpower trainingand operating practices.

The railroad is now reducing that uncertainty by giving its employees assigned restdays -- days when they have what amounts to a “right” to take the phone off thehook. For workers on the extra boards, the new schedule generally entitles them to 4 daysoff after 11 on the job. The program has been successfully implemented on approximately 70extra boards and plans called for transferring the concept to the pool boards at the endof the summer. The key difference is that it will be based on a 7-day-on, 3-day-offschedule.

“We’re giving the employee a window of time they can put on theirrefrigerator at home and say to their spouse, ‘During this three-day period we can dowhat we want to do. The phone’s not going to ring,’” says Smallwood.

Circadian Technologies even convinced Burlington Northern that current scientificevidence indicates that short “power” naps can improve an employee’salertness by a factor of hours.

“For a hundred years,” says Smallwood, “if we caught you sleeping onduty on this railroad, we’d fire you. But we learned that short naps can have markedrestorative value to our crews. So now we have rules that allow, in certain circumstances-- when motion is stopped and there’s no danger of any type of intervention --certain members of the train crew to take short, restorative naps. It’s part of ourculture now.”

Another change in thinking in recent years has concerned the length of the ideal workshift. We tend to think in terms of 8-hour shifts, but in a 24/7 environment where thework is not overly strenuous, a number of companies are experimenting with 12-hour shifts.

With more than 400 plants scattered across the country, International Paper,headquartered in Purchase, New York, has had experience with just about every shiftschedule imaginable. The one constant at its manufacturing plants, however, is thepressure to keep the paper-producing machinery running 24 hours a day, seven days a week.The challenge for company managers has been to devise a schedule that keeps the machinesrunning while at the same time giving employees a chance to strike an acceptable work/lifebalance. These seemingly contradictory demands led International Paper to launch a pilotprogram to measure the effect of rotating 12-hour shifts at its plant in DePere,Wisconsin.

“The real difficulty when it comes to 24/7 operations is whether you have fixedshifts or rotating shifts,” says Jeffrey Mayhew, business resources manager in thecompany’s industrial papers division. “Rotation gives everybody the opportunityto balance out. If you work on a permanent midnight shift, it can preclude a lot of thethings you would normally do during the daytime, whether it’s family or LittleLeague. With rotating shifts, everybody shares in the upsides and the downsides.”

The downside in the pilot project is the long hours and a schedule that rotates fromdaytime hours to nighttime hours and back again. The upside, however, is a wealth of freetime. Mayhew notes that the typical rotation at DePere follows a pattern of four days on,two off, three on, three off, three on, and four off. This means that employees work only190 days a year, giving them more time off than ever before, time they can use to balancethe demands of work and family life.

“Employees reported fewer problems with insomnia, fewer gastric problems, bettersleep habits, and better dietary habits,” says Mayhew. “We have much higheremployee satisfaction. It has worked out very well for us.”

If railroads and paper mills are emblems of the old economy, call center and servicedesks are emblems of the new. And it is in places like these that we find some of the mostinteresting approaches to life on the 24-hour clock.

As in the mature industries, managers here still report that smart scheduling is thekey to meeting quotas and keeping employees happy. These managers enjoy the advantage,however, of working more with individuals that with teams. Not only is it easier to createa schedule that meets the individual employee’s needs, it is possible to staggerindividual starting times over the course of a day. This reduces the disruptions thatcharacteristically occur during more traditional shift changes.

In the call centers, where safety concerns are less of an issue, we also see evidenceof other changes that are sweeping through the American workplace. At Sprint’s fourservice centers in Jacksonville, Phoenix, and Kansas City, agents typically handle between600 and 800 calls per shift. The work can be strenuous, so the long-distance carrierlaunched a campaign two years ago to lighten the atmosphere a bit. Now, employees canwatch television between calls, listen to their favorite CDs, do homework, or work attheir needlepoint. But, according to Mary Hogan, general manager of Sprint’s GlobalConnections Services, that’s just where the fun begins.

“We bring in popcorn machines. We’ve been known to play Trivial Pursuit andbingo. And on the all-nights, some of the centers will have pajama parties or Bring YourFavorite Stuffed Animal to Work nights. The focus is always on getting the work done, butonce they learn the job, it can be somewhat repetitive. That’s why we’ve donesome things to break the monotony.”

And if Mary herself dons a pair of chicken slippers and struts into the center doing a“chicken dance,” what harm is done? Last year, Sprint set a goal of reducingturnover by 25 percent and Global Connections Services met it.

Says Hogan, “We’ve really tried to take the stress out of the workenvironment so that people want to come to work.”

Even when people want to come to work, they eventually want to go home as well. Shiftworkers are lucky. The best employers provide education programs that teach them how toadapt to changing schedules; they create clean, well-lighted work areas; they supportall-night cafeterias and on-site fitness centers; and some are even furnishing nap rooms,complete with easy chairs and soothing white noise machines. But most importantly,perhaps, workers know that when their shifts end, they can pick up their coats and simplywalk away. Salaried employees are not so lucky. In a 24/7 global economy, it seems to themthat work is consuming an ever-expanding portion of their lives.

Whether or not this is in fact the case depends on how you read the numbers. The Bureauof Labor Statistics has found that the average workweek for managers and professionalsjumped from 41.2 hours in 1982 to 42 in 1999, an increase of only eight-tenths of anhours. On the other hand, 40 percent of the men employed as managers and professionals putin at least 49 hours per week. Perhaps more significantly, the Department of Labor reportsthat between 1969 and 1998, the number of married couples in which both spouses work morethan 40 hours per week jumped from 3.6 percent to 10.1 percent.

Without a shift schedule to protect them, these professionals look increasingly totheir employers to create a work environment that not only inspires them to put in theunpaid overtime, but that also allows them to lead some semblance of a normal life.

“The name of the game today is productivity and output,” says JohnChallenger, CEO of Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.“Good companies are struggling to make their environments ones that help theiremployees. They’re creating soft benefits programs that address the real needs thatpeople have, helping them balance their personal lives and working lives morecapably.”

This brings to mind the familiar litany of warm and fuzzy perks that we tend toassociate with the freewheeling high-tech firms of Silicon Valley and the PacificNorthwest -- weekly massages, pets in the office, well-equipped game rooms, and so on.And, as Challenger notes, there’s nothing wrong with bringing amenities like theseinto the work environment -- as long as they’re amenities that the employees willappreciate.

“If you put pinball machines in your offices and nobody plays pinball,” henotes, “it’s not going to do you much good. What is important is listening toyour people, and trying to design and create an environment that is responsive tothem.”

Assuming that employers are indeed listening to their employees, a recent surveyconducted by Hewitt Associates indicates that the most popular work/life benefits todayinclude childcare assistance (offered by a full 90 percent of employers); educationalassistance and personal and professional growth programs (75 percent); flexible schedulingarrangements such as flex time, job sharing, and telecommuting (57 percent); on-sitepersonal services such as banking services and dry cleaning (52 percent); and casual dresscodes (60 percent).

Ray Baumruk, employee research practice leader at Hewitt, believes that these thingsare indeed important. He has also found that employees need to feel truly engaged in whata business is doing, and a little fun isn’t a bad idea, either. But the best way toretain employees and make them feel that their sacrifices are worth the personal cost isto inspire them.

“In some of our ‘best employer’ research, where we’ve looked atseveral companies that on paper look exactly the same -- they pay the same, they havesimilar practices, they offer the same amount of flexibility and so forth -- yet some arejust more attractive places to be,” says Baumruk. “That’s where culture andgood people management make a difference...we see lower turnover rates from those kinds ofcompanies.”

My father never got flextime or dry-cleaning services, and the thought of him trundlingoff to work in a pair of Dockers and a polo shirt makes me feel a little light-headed. Butthe paychecks came in like clockwork and when any of us landed in the hospital, he neverhad to worry about paying the bills. On the other hand, he always regarded his son assomething of a stranger.

A lot can change in 30 years. And forward-thinking managers seem to be making it achange for the better.

Workforce, September 2000, Vol. 79, No. 9, pp. 35-42 -- Subscribe now!

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