MORE than 150 years ago, the English essayist Charles Lamb described a clerk in London whose job required "eight, nine, and sometimes ten hours' a-day attendance at a counting-house." So desperate was the man to escape "the irksome confinement of an office" that when his vacation finally arrived every summer, he spent the week "in restless pursuit of pleasure," trying to make the most of his brief freedom. But that in turn left him wondering: "Where was the quiet, where the promised rest? Before I had a taste of it, it was vanished."
Although working conditions have improved dramatically since Lamb's day, many late-20th-century employees can identify with the 19th-century clerk. As they spend weekends and vacations running errands and fulfilling family obligations, they dream of rearranging work schedules so they have time for "promised rest" on weekends.
At the moment, a few companies are making that more feasible by switching to "summer hours." The plan is simple: Add an hour to each workday Monday through Thursday, then give employees Friday afternoon off, thus extending the weekend.
After Labor Day, "summer hours" will be only a memory as work schedules return to normal. But the seasonal shift raises an intriguing question: What if managers redefined what is "normal" by maintaining flexibility all year?
Already some progressive firms - among them DuPont, Wells Fargo, IBM, and Ohio Bell - allow employees to tailor schedules to their own needs. One variation involves compressing a workweek into four 10-hour days or three 12-hour days. The newest formula, called 9/80, allows employees to work 80 hours over nine workdays, then take every other Friday off. Another option permits occasional or regular telecommuting from home.
Managers who use these flexible plans speak enthusiastically about their effectiveness and their positive effect on morale. Even so, many supervisors worry that workers who don't keep conventional 9-to-5 hours will somehow become corporate truants.
One of the newest buzzwords in human resources departments is "face time," a reference to the hours employees spend in the office, visible to bosses. For traditional managers, "face time" offers reassuring evidence that an employee is actually working. But for a new generation of forward-looking executives, a different attitude prevails. Rather than judging people by the hours they work, these managers judge them by the work they get done.
Gail Abel, vice president of work force strategies at Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco, explains the approach this way: "We've been encouraging managers to manage for results, and not manage by whether or not the person is sitting at a desk. That really is no indication of whether a person is working or producing. It's the product that makes the difference."
Some skeptics dismiss demands for flexibility as a "women's issue," driven primarily by mothers with young children. But experts like Hal Morgan, a manager at Work/Family Directions, a consulting firm in Boston, see flexibility as a "quality-of-life issue" and a "free-time issue" for men and women alike. Studies at DuPont Corporation found a 50 percent increase between 1985 and 1990 in the number of men interested in flexible options as a way to manage work and family needs.
Even so, Mr. Morgan harbors no delusions that change will come quickly. "There are still too many companies where `face time' is important - where you leave the light on when you go home so people think you're still there," he says. "It's going to be a hard cultural shift to make."
For Charles Lamb's weary clerk, the only way to find relief from endless hours of "face time" was to retire, which he did. Today, managers as well as clerks appreciate ingenious and productive ways to relieve uninterrupted work. As Faith Wohl, director of work force partnering at DuPont, explains, "People's minds don't stop. They may be in the office a reduced number of hours or a compressed workweek, but we have their experience, their skills, and their ideas full time. Clearly we're going to have their
commitment long-term if we meet their needs in the present."
Charles Lamb couldn't have said it better.