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On the clock, all the time

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

By Shira J. Boss Special to The Christian Science Monitor / September 25, 2000


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.

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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.

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 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."