On the clock, all the time

The 24/7 workplace creeps into a range of sectors, triggering celebration - and concerns.

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There used to be only one City That Never Sleeps. Now New York has competition. Even in the sleepiest towns, tumbleweeds no longer have Main Street to themselves after dark.

Factory workers and waitresses are no strangers to the late shift. But bankers, engineers, and other white-collar types now face a 24-hour culture, too.

"The phenomenon is about 100 years old, but in the past two to three years, it has been accelerated by the Internet and globalization," says Ed Coburn, publisher of Working Nights newsletter.

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The New Economy has set many formerly 9-to-5 companies on a slippery slope that has employees working late, then into the night, then all night.

In most offices, the phenomenon is voluntary, with "clockless workers" enjoying the flexibility of being able to work anytime.

Others are required to be on duty "after hours." Circadian Technologies, a consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass., that advises 24-hour companies, says it has more clients extending their hours to never-ending, or going from five- to seven-day operations. Employees with no five o'-clock whistle can find their days turned upside down, and sometimes their families, too.

The 24-hour business day started with the Internet, and with international companies kept awake by the fact that every minute, somebody, somewhere is doing business. The whiz kids in the computer world brought their dorm-room hours to work with them, and soon even managers were grinding out work at night.

"It starts with technology available to do work all the time. Then as there is more work to do, business speeds up, the market keeps expanding, and there is more of an emphasis on output," says John Challenger, chief executive of the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas in Chicago. "Then as it becomes doing business all the time, even in the service sector we're seeing formalized first, second, and third shifts."

A bank officer can be reached in the middle of the night to discuss a home-equity loan. Stocks are traded. Utility prices are negotiated. Groceries are delivered.

"Almost every person we talk to either has the need or desire to be 24 hours," says John Wingfield, a principal of Divaris Real Estate, which owns Netpark, an office complex in Tampa, Fla., which caters to call centers.

The all-night schedule has a trickle-down effect. If Amazon.com is taking orders at all hours, not only do tech-support and customer-service workers need to be awake, but distribution centers and shippers will also be churning 24 hours.

All those workers want to eat during their 3 a.m. lunch hour, so more restaurants and grocery stores are keeping their lights on. And children of single parents can't stay home alone, so day-care centers are starting to stay open around the clock.

"We've been on a capacity-building treadmill here for the past four years" says Bilie Osborne-Fears, director of Starting Point Childcare and Early Education in Cleveland, which has been encouraging centers to stay open during second and third shifts.

After work, there's entertainment. Heartland Golf Park in Edgewood, N.Y., doesn't have a set closing time, and keeps the nine-hole course lit for night owls. "We usually get a really large hit around 10 p.m. to midnight," says Jennifer Martin, Heartland's general manager. "We consider ourselves almost 24 hours, because by the time someone is finishing the course, it's only a couple hours until we open again."

With fewer people snug in their beds when the shades are down in the city, security is a greater concern. Netpark in Tampa monitors security cameras on every floor plus outside, and runs a fleet of 10-passenger golf carts to shuttle workers to and from their cars at all hours. "We've got a ton of money in security, and I think companies lease space because of it," Mr. Wingfield says.

With a large number of employees not just staying late but coming in only during off-hours, companies are starting to stretch their 9-to-5 departments. "A human-resources person needs to be on duty at least some of the time on the night shift," Mr. Coburn advises.

He adds, "I don't think we'll see a stampede, but increasingly companies are moving white-collar workers that could do their job during the day to the night."

He gives the example of an aerospace company that has its engineering group working at night because their experiments take so much energy, which is cheaper during off hours.

Electric power might be cheaper in the p.m., but running human power into the night costs a company extra. Especially in this full-employment economy, anyone working when the sun is down wants to be compensated - and not just with cash.

"Companies are having to flex back if 24-7 is required," Mr. Challenger says. "People are demanding in return ways to balance that."

The most common compromise is for companies to offer flexible schedules, and focus on results rather than hours clocked. The model of a supervisor looking over shoulders is fading as workers are being given more independence.

"We're forecasting that when you sign on with a company, you'll decide with a manager when and how you'll work. Nothing is set in stone," says Joyce Gioia, a consultant with the Herman Group in Greensboro, N.C., and author of "Lean & Meaningful: A New Culture for Corporate America" (Oakhill Press).

Whether employees are voluntarily or formally on duty, progressive companies are offering amenities in the forms of sleeping rooms, free shuttle service home, all-night cafeterias, and on-site fitness facilities.

Netpark, in Tampa, offers 24-hour child care as well as a restaurant, Internet cafe, gym, and lit, swipe-card-protected outdoor jogging trail.

Many larger corporations are forming their own all-night "workvilles," while smaller companies are joining complexes with amenities built in.

Even with workplaces becoming more safe and comfortable at all hours, there's no place like home, especially when you feel you're meant to be there.

More working mothers and fathers are demanding they work more from home, attempting to not short change their families. But this flexibility can present more dilemmas than having a set work routine.

Being tethered to work remotely, even if officially it is voluntary, can interrupt the rhythm of work/life balance. "For people who have structured their lives outside work, as work becomes deconstructed, that puts incredible stress on the system," Challenger says.

Where once it was a status symbol to take a business call on a cellphone, today eyes roll when mobile phones ring on commuter trains or Palm Pilots appear at the dinner table. Now workplace experts say people are edging away from an all-day work mentality and saying that a line needs to be drawn. "I don't think we'll get away from 24/7," Challenger says. "But I do think people will continue to make inroads reclaiming their personal time."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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