The Shrinking Workplace

July 25, 1993|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite

Corporate America is reinventing itself for the 21st century. With it, work for most Americans will change radically. Companies will be smaller. Managers fewer. Workers more skilled. Hours more flexible

Deb Lingle is tomorrow's worker.

Hired 14 years ago as a high school graduate to do a single job, she has become a one-woman production line, able to do all 15 tasks in the assembly, packaging and shipping of electrical transformers.

From putting terminals on wire ends to assembling parts, from operating machines to maintaining them, from training new employees to buying components, she can do it all.

She is, in a word, multifunctional.

And, as companies strive to meet the relentless demand for ever-increasing productivity, quality and instant marketplace response, her story will become commonplace.

Her company, Zytec Corp., which produces power packs for electronic equipment in Redwood Falls, Minn., is a case study of how both managers and workers can successfully respond to these challenges.

The issues here are the jobs that will be available, their required skills and the very nature of work itself -- themes of a major conference on "The Future of the American Workplace" to be opened by President Clinton in Chicago tomorrow. The painfully slow recovery from the 1990-1991 recession has sensitized the nation to traumatic adjustments -- unemployment, career changes, relocations -- likely to become the norm as corporate America reinvents itself in the 21st century.

Beyond the sluggish recovery is a fundamental economic change: the replacement of industry's century-old electromechanical base by the new computer-based service infrastructure. In human terms: the replacement of the old-fashioned tradesman by the newfangled technician.

Flattened management structures, telecommuting, outsourcing and many smaller work trends are, at second glance if not first, also products of the information age.

To Cornell Professor Stephen R. Barley, we are living through a "seismic" shift in the nature of work, matching the 19th century's mass migration from field to factory.

"What I am worried about," echoes futurist Jennifer Jarratt, "is the notion of people thinking they need an employer. I think employers are disappearing faster than employment. The notion big employers that can take care of you is going, going, gone.`

Ms. Jarratt, vice president of Coates & Jarratt Inc., a Washington workplace consultancy, adds: "We need some new vision of work and work life."

Some trends are already clear:

* The constant advances in computer speed and power will change work patterns, with flexible hours and working from home becoming more common.

* Workers will be expected to have several skills, be subjected to constant retraining and be self-directed.

* Management will change, with new priorities of product quality and customer satisfaction transcending traditional concerns about worker attendance and mechanical job-performance measures.

* Big corporations will shrink as technology enables work to flow to smaller units, especially outside contractors, who will flourish in an information-driven economy.

"The things we do with what in some sense is the new freedom provided by this technology will depend on what is important to us," said Professor Thomas W. Malone, director of the Center for Coordination Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"Is it more important for people to have more autonomy in their work, more important for them to spend less time working? Would we like to have work lives that interpenetrate our home lives more in the future, like some of us had in our agricultural past?

"What does it mean for people to grow personally through their work, and is it possible to design organizations that encourage that rather than inhibit that? I guess I don't think there are answers yet, but I think it is important to ask those questions."

Dr. Malone sees corporate "adhocracies" replacing established

hierarchies as more and more employees gain access to more and more information and are increasingly invited -- directed -- to join in the decision-making process. The lines of communication will not be just from the top down. They will also be horizontal, diagonal, upward, spiraled.

An empowered employee

Enter Deb Lingle and Zytec Corp.

She is, in the vernacular of modern management, an empowered employee, a high-performing member of a self-directed work team, regularly evaluated by her own production-line peers.

Each of the 15 skills she has acquired on the production line and even as a buyer-planner in the company's commercial office has brought its own reward: a pay raise. Workers at Zytec can earn two raises a year by advancing their skills.

For Ms. Lingle, that translates into about $17,388 a year in wages -- $6,864, or more than a third of it, made up of skill-based pay. Production line starting pay at Zytec is $10,524, about half the statewide average of $20,797 for electronic and electrical equipment workers.

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