PALO ALTO, Calif. -- There may be a time, in the not-so-distant future, when the new hire on the job stumbles by a couple of veterans chatting about the old days. "Remember when they used to make us work 9-to-5?" one of the older workers asks.
"How many days a week did they make you do that?" the rookie passer-by chirps in.
It can happen, and, in fact, it has already begun.
A new generation of workers is introducing itself to the American work force. These workers are more educated and are pursuing a broader education. They are sharing family roles in larger percentages than their parents and grandparents. They are finding alternatives to the problem of living close to the workplace.
Professionals are just beginning to force the issue of changing styles of day-to-day work, but employers are seeing the benefits, too.
Flexibility, when adopted, is a win-win situation. Companies that adopt flexible scheduling, compressed workweeks and telecommuting are the ones able to keep valuable employees, keep production at a high level, and in the end, maintain or increase profits. The "that's-not-the-way-we-do-it" companies are being left with disgruntled workers who use sick days to update their resumes.
One of the main reasons for the change in work habits is the evolution of American business.
Many workers who have been laid off or frustrated with their previous jobs have moved on and started companies of their own and are bent on not doing things the way they saw them fail at the old job. The new companies will be at the forefront of the change.
"The attitudinal questions are very deep and very hard to get at," said Barney Olmstead, co-founder and co-director of New Ways to Work, a non-profit group in San Francisco that is dedicated to finding innovative styles of working.
"Work is viewed as being done in a very standardized way for a very long time," Mr. Olmstead said. "It's a whole new ballgame for supervisors and managers, but it's a whole new ballgame for the work force and the economy."
The most basic change in the 40-hour workweek is the advent of the restructured schedule:
* Flextime schedules allow employees to choose their starting and quitting times within limits set by management. The flexible periods are at either end of a central period during which all employees must be present.
* Compressed workweeks are 40-hour weeks shortened to fewer than five days. Among the options are four 10-hour days; three 12-hour days; or a two-week pay period with five nine-hour days in the first week and four nine-hour days plus a free day in the second week.
* Telecommuting involves working at home or at satellite offices on a regular schedule. Employees can be connected to the main office via computer, fax or telephone.
Workers who cannot or choose not to work full time are finding more options on the job.
Among those are:
* Regular part-time work by employees on a company's regular payroll. This option offers the same degree of job security and a prorated share of the rights and benefits available to the full-time workers.
* Job sharing, by which two people voluntarily share the responsibilities of one full-time job, while salary and benefits are prorated. The position allows for more continuity because partners can trade time or fill in for each other.
* Voluntary reduced work time are programs that allow employees to make time or income trade-offs on a prearranged basis.
Full-time employees can reduce work hours for a certain period, with a corresponding reduction in compensation. Benefits are pro-rated.
* Phased or partial retirement are options for older workers to reduce work hours for a period of time before retirement. These require new pension policies that don't penalize senior employees who work part time.
* Leaves and sabbaticals are authorized periods of times away from work, without loss of employment rights. Paid or unpaid leaves can be used for a variety of reasons, including community service, education or caring for dependent family members.
* Work sharing exists where all or part of an organization's work force temporarily reduces hours and salary as an alternative to layoffs.
All these plans are fine in theory, especially to workers battling the stress of greater workloads in companies making cutbacks, or workers interested in continuing school or starting families. But can companies change with workers' needs? Some already have.
Tandem Computers Inc. in Cupertino, Calif., uses its sabbatical program as an incentive for cross-training. Hours vacated by employees on sabbatical provide opportunities for other employees to learn new skills.