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Work In the '90s is More Than A Box of Chocolates

January 1, 1999
Related Topics: Work/Life Balance, Time Management, Featured Article
You must have seen the classic "I Love Lucy" episode in which Lucy and Ethel get jobs at a candy factory. At first, the job seems quite simple: All the ladies have to do is wrap pieces of chocolate as they move slowly on a conveyor belt.

Of course, life with Lucy is never that simple. It isn't long before their supervisor decides to boost productivity and yells, "Speed it up!" In moments, the ladies have fallen hopelessly behind. They make several frantic attempts to keep up-eating the candy, stuffing unwrapped pieces into their hats and blouses-but it's to no avail.

Just remembering the episode may make you laugh. After all, the stories were always exaggerated in the name of entertainment. But the episode did reflect at least a patina of truth about jobs in the 1950s.

Now imagine the same scenario in the '90s. To begin with, Lucy is working alone. Ethel was laid off months before in a downsizing designed to boost stock prices. Besides, new technology does some of the wrapping and is supposed to make it possible for one employee to do the work of two.

But Lucy is struggling, and not just because she's, well, Lucy. In the '90s, she's not wrapping just one kind of candy. She's wrapping a variety of candy, and each kind has to get wrapped differently. Customers need to know whether the chocolate is dark or milk, and what sort of filling it has inside. And the company offers some clients custom wrapping so that the candy can be used for fundraising.

The variety might be OK if it didn't change so much, but Lucy gets new instructions almost daily as the market changes and the company responds. Lucy would complain, but she's had several different supervisors because the company has restructured so much.

Lucy is told that the company is hiring more employees. But the people that were laid off have gone to work for smaller companies or started their own businesses. The company can find few people to interview, and most of those they find aren't qualified. So Lucy waits.

Keeping up with the wrapping isn't her only challenge, either. She's supposed to check her voice mail every few hours, and use the terminal on the factory floor to get e-mail and visit the corporate intranet. Without those tools, how would she know about the training sessions on diversity and the motivational meetings? How else would she know whether the rumors of a buyout by a Belgian candy company are true?

Are you still laughing, or are you ready to cry? Work life in the '90s is tough on all of us. Most of us feel overwhelmed and that we're falling further behind. Calls go unreturned, deadlines are missed, goals are renegotiated or forgotten.

There are no easy explanations or solutions. But we must ask the questions and begin looking for solutions because the impact is more than frustration and stress: The quality of our lives at work- and the quality of the products we produce while we're there-is suffering.

The topic is important enough that we'll be talking about it, on and off, all year. This month's cover story is the beginning of that dialogue. I hope that you'll participate in the dialogue loudly and actively. Wouldn't we all like to be laughing again?


Workforce, January 1999, Vol. 78, No. 1, p. 6.

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