In today's high tech, fast-paced world, the work environment is very different than it was a generation ago. According to the Institute of Industrial Engineers, it is not uncommon for a person to change careers an average of six times in his or her lifetime. It is now rare for a person to stay with a single company his or her entire working life. Because employees are often willing to leave a company for better opportunities, companies need to find ways not only to hire qualified people, but also to retain them.
Unfortunately, many employees these days feel they are working harder, faster, and longer hours than ever before. Job-related employee stress can lead to lack of commitment to the corporation, poor productivity, and even leaving the company; all of which are of serious concern to management. Many employees bring work home with them on a regular basis, especially now that it is so easy for them to do that. With the wide availability of cell phones, pagers, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and computers, employees find it harder to get away from the office.
One of the more stressful professions today is in the Information Technology (IT) field. Not long ago, IT professionals were extremely well respected and in demand. As technology advanced rapidly, there was a high demand for programmers and engineers. Most had their choice of high-paying jobs as technology companies competed to recruit the best of them.
This is not the case today. In June 2004, Meta Group, Inc. surveyed 650 companies and found that nearly 75 percent of the companies acknowledged morale problems among their IT staffs. This number was up from the year before, which showed that two-thirds cited poor worker morale as an issue. Perhaps this is because the U.S. technology sector experienced widespread layoffs during the third quarter of 2004. In general, when layoffs happen the remaining employees are forced to pick up the workload of those who were laid off. This leads to added responsibility and longer work hours, often without additional compensation. This in turn leads to stress, burnout, and resentment. Other causes of employee dissatisfaction include low wages, lack of challenges, insufficient resources, unrealistic expectations, pressure to produce, willfully blind management, unreasonable policies and procedures, difficulty balancing family and work, and increased health benefit costs.
As employers try to address employee turnover and job satisfaction issues, they must first determine what the issues are. Several companies have convened focus groups and conducted employee-satisfaction surveys to find out how their employees feel and to determine what they can do to make their employees happy.
There are also a number of independent organizations that conduct employee surveys to gather this information. One such organization is the Families and Work Institute (www.familiesandwork.org), a nonprofit research center "that provides data to inform decision-making on the changing workforce and workplace, changing family and changing community. Founded in 1989, FWI is known for ahead of the curve, non-partisan research into emerging work-life issues; for solutions-oriented studies addressing topics of vital importance to all sectors of society; and for fostering connections among workplaces, families, and communities."
Every five years FWI conducts the National Study of the Changing Workforce (NSCW), a nationally representative sample of employed workers designed to collect and compile information on the work and personal/family lives of the U.S. workforce. The study is widely used by policy makers, employers, the media, and all those interested in the widespread impacts of the changing conditions of work and home life.
The 2002 NSCW showed a slight increase from 1992 in the number of companies that offer work-life supports on the job—both specific benefit entitlements and less formal policies and practices. Despite this, the survey showed a large increase in the number of employees with families who felt there was interference between their jobs and their family lives, than employees 25 years ago. The NSCW also found "the importance of supportive work-life policies and practices, such as flexible work arrangements, is clear—when they are available, employees exhibit more positive work outcomes, such as job satisfaction, commitment to employer, and retention, as well as more positive life outcomes, such as less interference between job and family life, less negative spillover from job to home, greater life satisfaction, and better mental health."
What does this mean to the employer? As more companies start to realize that a happy employee is a productive employee, they have started to look for ways to improve the work environment. Many have implemented various work-life programs to help employees, including alternate work arrangements, onsite childcare, exercise facilities, relaxed dress codes, and more. Quality-of-work-life programs go beyond work/life programs by focusing attention less on employee needs outside of work and realizing that job stress and the quality of life at work is even more direct bearing on worker satisfaction. Open communications, mentoring programs, and fostering more amicable relationships among workers are some of the ways employers are improving the quality of work life.
Many employers have found it beneficial to allow alternate work arrangements for their employees. This is one way to improve employee productivity and morale. There are three alternate arrangements that are widely used today.
Telecommuting is the term used to describe the work situation in which the employee works outside of the office, usually at home or at a location closer to home. In general, when one telecommutes, he or she communicates with the office via telephone and email, and may go into the office periodically to touch base with the employer and to attend meetings. Advancements in technology have made this possible for many people to telecommute. The telecommuting employee may be able to access files on the office's network from remote locations. And with conference call, videoconferencing, and WebEx capabilities, the employee can attend meetings from other locations. With WebEx technology, meeting attendees can sit at their own computers and view the meeting organizer's computer desktop via the Internet. As the meeting organizer opens applications and moves the mouse on his or her computer, the remote attendees can see those same applications and movements as if they were running them on their own computers.
Flextime is another name for flexible work hours. Although most employees with flextime do work a full eight-hour day, they can start and end the workday at a time agreeable to both the employer and the employee, rather than the traditional 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. work day. Most employers require their employees to be in the office during "core hours," such as 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. but do not mandate the start and end times.
Alternate work schedules, like flexible schedules, involve working outside of the traditional 8 to 5 workday. However, alternate schedules have a fixed start and end time, whereas flextime allows the employee to vary start and end as long as they are there during the core hours. An alternate schedule may be 6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. or 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. five days a week, or it may be four 10-hour days, or any other different schedule.
The advantages of these alternate work arrangements to the employee include flexible work hours, shorter or no commute, and a comfortable working environment. The advantages to the employer include less need for office space, increased productivity, lower use of sick leave, and improved employee morale.
While there are many advantages to these alternatives, there are also several disadvantages that the employer must consider. These include problems maintaining adequate staffing coverage, difficulty scheduling meetings, lack of interpersonal dynamics, and concerns about safety and security (for flextime and alternate schedule employees that come in early or leave late). It is up to the employer to weigh the advantages against the disadvantages to determine if any of these alternatives will work.
To improve the quality of work life and eliminate job stress, employers can also make efforts to be more aware of the workload and job demands. Employers need to examine employee training, communication, reward systems, coworker relationships, and work environment. Employees often are able to give employers the best advice on reducing work stress.
Employees in the future will likely be looking for corporations that have a new work environment, one that encourages each employee to work toward improvement in the product or service; gives employees the responsibility and authority to make decisions, provides timely feedback, and rewards employees based upon the quality of the product and efforts. Team effort will assume central importance, especially that of self-directed work teams. Employees will choose employers who have aims and values that match theirs and who value balance in their employees' lives. Employees want to learn and advance, so opportunities for professional growth will attract employees.
Companies will seek employees with technical skills, vision, and the ability to organize and persuade in presentation of ideas and information. Strong communication skills and the ability to learn will be high on employers' demand list for employees. There are a great number of common elements between the employee list and the employer list. To attract and retain employees, companies need to be exploiting those points of convergence and continuously work with employees to redesign the work, eliminate job stress, increase job autonomy, provide learning and training opportunities, and improve the quality of work life.
Rhoda L. Wilburn
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