Quadrupling productivity; How stay-at-homes get the job done

Bobbie McCrackin didn't show up at her job at the research office of the Federal Reserve here recently until afternoon. And her bosses didn't mind at all.

At a time when even small productivity gains are news in the United States, productivity at her office has quadrupled in the past two years. And staying home is part of the secret.

Mrs. McCrackin had a report due and wanted the quiet of home to work on it. She got up and started writing at 7 a.m., ''just out of the freshness of sleep, '' she explains. Later she got to work quicker because there was no rush-hour jams.

These days Mrs. McCrackin does most of her report writing on a word processor - skipping the typical old pattern of hand-writing draft reports, having them typed, correcting them, and having them retyped.

And although she still has to make a lot of telephone calls to gather facts for her reports, many of the more routine facts she needs are now available within seconds, appearing on the screen of a desk-top computer.

Offices using computers and word processors are ''quite common,'' says Parks Dodd of Data Resources Inc., which supplies companies with economics data by computer. And the American Productivity Center in Houston says office gains of 9 .5 percent can be expected with adequate use of such devices.

But quadrupling of productivity - measured in the number of reports the research office of the Fed here is producing each year - indicates that something more than just machines is involved.

A visit to the office indicates that the something extra is changes in the way employees are allowed - and expected - to work.

* Employees draw up their own work plans each year, subject to revisions by their boss.

* Merit pay increases of 15 to 18 percent a year or more are relied on for added incentive (though only a few have received that much).

* Secretaries vote on whom they want to work for, and their bosses vote on whom they want as secretaries.

* Working at home is encouraged, since job performance is measured in results , not hours behind a desk. (But on most days only two or three of the approximately 30 researchers are working at home.)

The key is ''getting people here excited about working,'' says Donald L. Koch , the man who has initiated the series of changes since he arrived in January 198l. He is senior vice-president and director of research of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

The goal is to instill a ''sense of camaraderie,'' Mr. Koch explains in his fifth-floor office, equipped with desk-top computer and word processor. ''Anyone has the right to shoot down the boss'' in discussions, he says.

Federal Reserve economist Frank King points out, however, that there are fewer discussions these days because their work goals are clearer.

And working at home does not mean working less, employees say. ''I could go home and not do anything all day, but I'm the one who's going to suffer,'' says economist Delores Steinhauser.

Employees are expected to do more than they did before. Says one: The office atmosphere used to be ''sleepy.'' Now it is one of ''challenge'' and ''pressure.''

As for the $250,000 worth of new office computers and processors, economist Steinhauser recalls the way things were. ''When I came here (nearly two years ago) we had one (computer) terminal. It was off in a corner, kind of clunky. It didn't work very well.'' Today the office has eight desk-top computers and is about to buy four more. There are also 22 word processors (which have typewriter-type keyboards but allow mistakes to be corrected before printing) scattered among the entire staff of about 60, including secretarial and administrative personnel.

The office subcribes to seven data source services, which cuts research time. Economist Gene Sullivan says this results in better interpretation of data by cutting time spent gathering it.

But there are still some snags. Some regional data are not available on the subscription services, so a lot of research is still done by reading reports and calling people. Some employees still write reports by hand for secretaries to type instead of using the word processors themselves.

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