Taking our eyes off the clock

Plenty of jobs still exist that offer the sweet simplicity of walking behind a plow, or building something you can hold.

But vast numbers of desk-based worker bees spend their days on more ambiguous tasks - going to meetings, answering the phone, coming back from lunch to delete irrelevant e-mail.

One big issue for such workers and their bosses in a competitive age has been coming up with what management consultants like to call the "metric" for efficiency.

That's jargon for "Hey, what do you get done around here, exactly?"

Some fields have clear measures of success: legal cases won, boxes shipped, doughnuts sold.

Many don't. Achievement can be hard to quantify. Hours on the job? Easy to count.

In recent decades, workers have increasingly pointed to the clock and to their investment of time spent at the boss's disposal.

The American work ethic, as one analyst says in today's lead story, became an "overwork ethic," with long hours becoming well-buffed badges of indispensability.

Sept. 11 caused many hard workers to revisit their priorities. Some found they had undervalued their time away from work.

But rising unemployment may be sending another message: Become too invisible at the office, and your job might disappear. Some workplace watchers say this will send workers back to the races.

Will workers resist? A handful of studies have touted flexibility as the benefit that employees crave most.

In a face-to-face service economy, of course, we can't all telecommute. Besides, the "connectivity" that has so many Americans driving with cellphones has its own detractors.

But can we find ways of working that we can live with?

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