From a loosening to a lockdown

Pushed to produce, workers see a darker side of the flexible-jobs trend: Jobs that seeps into personal life mean less room for personal life at work.

Call it the latest round in the workplace power struggle – and score it for employers.

By cutting jobs, many US companies have boosted productivity. For many employees, that has meant heavier workloads and more pressure to perform.

Lean economic times have also given firms just cause to pull back on some of the flashier perks of the go-go '90s, such as concierge services at the office.

And what about that bedrock practice of the New Economy, worker flexibility? Firms actually have good reason not to rescind it.

"[The recession] really accelerated the shift in how corporate America gets work done," says Ed Jensen, an Atlanta-based partner in consulting firm Accenture's Human Performance Practice.

But the terms of that work/life compact – in which many employees earn some freedoms during "normal hours" in exchange for making themselves more available at oddball times – appear now to be up for renegotiation.

And in a climate of cutbacks, workers may not have much bargaining power. The question some workplace watchers now ask: How much ground might employees be asked to give up?

Consider that connectedness-for-freedom tradeoff. The use of electronic "leashes" by workers shows no sign of waning, with the pressure to stay connected even extending to vacations, according to John Challenger, head of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

"People who are needed and who consistently respond to those needs are far down the list of candidates for downsizing," Mr. Challenger says. "If you want to be missed a lot, do not disconnect."

But at the same time, scrutiny of employees while at the office has intensified, experts say.

A Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll found that slightly more than half of workers say their bosses have asked them to work beyond normal work hours and remain reachable when they're off. And 39 percent say their employers' expectations have significantly increased in the past six months. Many feel pressured to comply.

"One-half of American workers believe that working over and above normal work hours is essential to their job security," says Raghavan Mayur, president of TIPP, a unit of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence, which conducted the poll.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the proportion of managers working more than 50 hours a week continues to rise. Meanwhile, lower level employees are finding there's more scrutiny on how much they produce. Some employers, looking to weed out nonperformers, for example, are taking a closer look at down time.

Firms are stepping up their use of software and devices that monitor electronic communications, including "instant messaging" and Internet discussion groups.

"We're finding more organizations relying more heavily on technological tools," says Nancy Flynn, executive director of the e-Policy Institute in Columbus, Ohio.

Englewood, Colo.-based Vericept, for example, which manufactures a device that monitors computer transmissions, has seen sales grow rapidly over the past year.

"[Companies] want to make sure they're laying off the right people," says Vericept's Mike Reagan. "Who are the Internet abusers?"

The use of company phones and cellphones may also be getting more attention, says Tim Orellano, president of The Human Resources Team, a consulting firm in Little Rock, Ark.

As a result, employees may be taking steps to fly under the radar. A recent survey by Mirtz Telecom Research Group found 44 percent of wireless subscribers now use cellphones at work for personal calls.

Besides greater scrutiny, employees are losing benefits many grew accustomed to during the boom years.

Employees are less likely to mind the loss of more luxurious perks when benefits are cut back, especially if they're given the sense that top executives are sharing the pain, says Mr. Jensen. But the little losses can grate.

"There was a big backlash to those little things relative to the amount of money that was saved," says Accenture's Jensen, who cited the removal of free beverages from company cupboards as one cost savings not worth the price paid in employee ire. "[Companies have] learned they need to be more thoughtful about the tradeoff between how much you save and the [employee] reaction."

And the loss of freedom at the office, whether it's using the Internet for fun or running out for a few errands, may be the most problematic, Jensen and others say.

Benefits designed to increase workers' flexibility, as well as save the company money on office space and support staff, wind up reducing employees' freedom at home. The ability to connect at any time means also having to be constantly available. "Work is expanding to fit our time," says Natalie Gahrmann, owner of N-R-G Coaching Associates in Hillsborough, N.J.

For now, at least, employees feel little choice but to go along. "They don't want to be the next person tapped on the shoulder," says Ms. Gahrmann. But all that pressure can deflate morale and wind up permanently alienating employees.

Even before the recession, employee loyalty was slipping. A survey last year by Walker Information found only a quarter of workers felt truly loyal. The survey also found a large proportion of "trapped workers" who would leave their jobs but felt they couldn't at the time.

That could be troubling for firms putting too tight a squeeze on their workforces. Experts say employers could see a backlash when recovery comes. "Employees have long memories," says Philadelphia employment lawyer Jonathan Segal. "And employers who suck the life out of employees often [see them] leave when they have the opportunity."

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