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Gas Price Crisis Could Revolutionize U.S. Workplace

The talk of the show is spiking gas prices, and the short- and long-term effects they could have on how the nation works.

June 23, 2008
Related Topics: Future Workplace, Work/Life Balance, Workforce Planning, Latest News
Soaring gas prices top economic and political agendas, so it’s natural that they also are a topic of conversation at the Society for Human Resource Management Annual Conference & Exposition in Chicago.

The buzz portends a fundamental change in the U.S. workplace, according to John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago outplacement firm.

Challenger overheard some people talking about their pain at the pump while riding in an elevator at the show. The thrust of the chat: “How are we going to get around this gas situation?”

Such worry is more than a transient concern.

“The country is coming to terms with permanently higher gas prices,” Challenger says.

Employees are hurting, and companies are responding by offering compressed work schedules, four-day weeks, telecommuting, gas cards and car-pooling.

These are more than short-term fixes, Challenger says. They are the beginning of a revolution in the office that will result in productivity being the central value of work, rather the number of hours logged by employees. They also dovetail with other trends like globalization and a 24-hour view of the workday that accommodates all time zones—Asia, Europe and the United States.

“The idea of a set workday or a five-day workweek doesn’t make sense,” Challenger says. “It’s not about the time you put in. It’s about the work you do.

SHRM also is focused on gas prices. At the conference’s opening press event on Sunday, June 22, the organization highlighted its recent poll showing that companies are increasingly offering flexible schedules and telecommuting to help workers cope. 

“Many employees are taking the commute to work very seriously,” says Steven Williams, SHRM director of research. “It’s an economic issue now. It’s not just a hassle.”

Paul Shanahan, regional vice president of Adecco, a contingent staffing firm, says that the people his company taps for assignments are resisting travel for work.

“They’re willing to forgo an opportunity now if they can find something closer to home,” Shanahan says.

At its offices, Manpower isn’t noticing a big impact on its employees from the gas prices. But one of the answers to keeping people off the road—telecommuting—is enormously popular, according to Mark Toth, the company’s chief legal officer.

“Telecommuting is one of the very best things we can do,” Toth says. “You have better results. You get more done.”

It’s a benefit that job candidates covet.

“When you mention it in an interview, their eyes spark up,” Toth says.

As a gallon of gas continues to climb well above $4, it also is changing the way that companies thank employees.

Gas cards are becoming popular. On the other hand, cash rewards are falling out of favor because employees tend to use them to cover rising everyday expenses like energy and food, according to J. Mindi Cox, managing editor of marketing communications at O.C. Tanner, a company that specializes in employee recognition programs.

“[Companies] are not getting the same impact out of [cash gifts] that they were getting previously,” Cox says.

Instead, they’re turning to rewards that are linked to the behavior the company is trying to reinforce. For instance, if an employee has excelled at a wellness program, she might get a bike.

More changes are on the way, Challenger says. Corporations will increase their emphasis on environmentalism and sustainability.

“The gas crisis is the catalyst,” he says.

Click here for complete SHRM 2008 coverage

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

There's a discussion about telecommuting taking place in the Workforce Community Center’s Benefits & Compensation Forum. Click here to join the conversation.

There's also a discussion about creating a compressed work week taking place in General Forum. Click here to join that conversation.

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