Nomads at Work

WHEN businesses wish to promote a warm and fuzzy image in television ads, they still describe themselves in old-fashioned terms as a family. If they are not, in fact, a dysfunctional family, they seem ready at least to resemble an empty nest these days.

The corporate workplace as a sustained community is being deconstructed by layoffs and downsizing. At the extreme, displaced white-collar workers are becoming a species of itinerant laborers.

A whole new vocabulary has developed to describe the tenuous connections between employees and their employers. Welcome to the floating world of temps, contract workers, leased employees, and just plain freelancers - a world in which business executives are as likely to be transients as are their former secretaries.

An example of how former rocks of Gibraltar are turning into skipping stones: Xerox has been striking deals in which the giant corporation takes over the mail rooms and print shops of other companies, making them units of Xerox. At the same time, Xerox eliminated its own telecommunications division, outsourcing (to use the new jargon) the operation to Electronic Data Systems - which just happens to be a unit of General Motors.

A state-of-the-art business can have as many outsourced employees as a state-of-the-art automobile has outsourced components. These organizational reshufflings may well prove to be short-lived, to be succeeded by further improvisations.

Observers of this merry-go-round warn that white-collar workers of the future, from the chief executive down, can count on only three to five years in one position - and that's if their performance is first-rate.

So far economists are putting a positive spin on things, making a virtue of adaptability. A broken business family is not the equivalent of a broken family. But the destabilizing of the workplace needs to be considered more seriously, more thoughtfully. It's not enough to hire stress counselors - contract workers no doubt - and assume the problem has been met.

Shared responsibilities and shared rewards, a common purpose, a mutual loyalty - these bonds nurture men and women at work as well as in the home. It would be a sad irony if, just when the family is being reacknowledged as fundamental to society's well-being, the business family should be heedlessly dismembered, leaving the workplace an assembly line of strangers.

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