Monday, March 9, 2009

Will Furloughs Change the American Workplace Forever?

If you would have suggested a year ago to employees that they should take an unpaid leave for a few days or even a week to help out an employer's bottom line, they might have suggested you assume an anatomically difficult position.

Now, employees are volunteering to take time off without pay in order to help employers avoid layoffs.

While career coaches are advising employees to use any furlough time to network and spiff up their resumes and interviewing skills, I began wondering what workers really were planning to do on their days off. Since I know many employees these days feel stressed and overworked (and have for many years), I wondered if all of them truly planned to keep their game face on when they were taking a furlough.

Lynnette Harris, employed by the state of Utah, told me that when she first heard employees were going to take a one-week furlough to help with the state's budget crunch, her first thought was that is was a much better alternative than making layoffs.

Her second thought was that she would finally have time to wade through her book club’s selection this month: the 900-page classic, “Don Quixote.”

“You can grouse about the furlough, but you can also look at it another way. So, I choose to think that I’ll be home to have a girls spa day with my daughter. I’ll clean out a couple of closets while the witnesses are at school and won’t stop me from donating things they haven’t used in years to a local second-hand store,” says Harris, who works for Utah State University’s School of Agriculture. “I’ll cook some things I don’t normally have time for because of work.”

It appeared Harris wasn't alone in her thoughts of using her furlough time for relaxing and catching up on her personal tasks.

Pati Brown, who works for the State of California’s museums and historical parks, told me she will use her two-day a month furlough, as mandated by the state, to paint her master bedroom, fix the patio cover, perhaps schedule a doctor’s appointment, get some car repairs taken care of and maybe even get her hair done.

While Brown and Harris were realistic about the future and know the financial hit won't be fun, I could tell they were both sort of looking forward to some guilt-free time off. I say "guilt-free" because one of the rules of furloughs is that you can't check your e-mails, sneak into work, make phone calls about work, etc. That's because if you do, it could cause legal problems for the employer because it could be argued you were working -- and that means you should be paid. (Sort of defeating the purpose of the furlough.)

When was the last time your boss told you to take time off, and forbid you to check e-mail? Or to even call into work? When was the last time you didn't feel guilty for not checking your messages while you took a personal day or didn't take your laptop to check e-mail on vacation?

That's why I was so struck by Brown's prediction: "This may permanently alter the American workforce once people adjust to the lower income.”

Harris echoed that sentiment. Like many working couples with children, Harris says she and her husband often have a hectic non-stop blur of constant obligations and activities. “Shifting gears might not be the worst thing for us,” she says.

So, I asked work/life balance expert Lori Long what she thought of the idea that the American workplace may be undergoing a shift. She agreed with the two women I interviewed and even went one step further, predicting that employers are going to see more than a quick bottom-line benefit from the furloughs.

“Workers may become more efficient because they know they have to get work done in less time. And, because these workers are going to be less stressed when they’ve had some time off, I think they’re going to be happier and more productive and creative,” Long says. “We may find that a temporary solution becomes a permanent solution.”

For right now, Brown and Harris say they’re viewing the furloughs favorably because they hope they will help avoid any layoffs.

“My husband is self-employed and his business has really been down, so I need this job for the money and the health insurance. If we take these furloughs for the greater good – to keep anyone from losing their job – then how can that be a bad thing? Sure, it’s going to cost us, but it also has made me really look at what we need, and what we just think we need,” Harris says.

What other impact do you think the workplace will undergo because of these tough times?

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Friday, October 24, 2008

10 Things Overheard at the Last Management Meeting

As an employee, it's often nerve-wracking to see managers troop into a meeting during these difficult financial times. What are they talking about? Is it good? Is it bad? Are they debating who is going to get laid off? Plans for a big project? What critical decisions are they making that the fate of dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- of employees hinge upon?

It would be interesting to a fly on the wall during these sessions. That's why I thought I would speculate about 10 things overheard at the last management meeting:

1. "I told you we have auditors."

2. "We need to make some decisions about personnel. Anyone got a quarter? OK -- call it. If it's heads, Trish goes. Tails, it's Larry."

3. "We've got to find a way to cut down on distractions around here. All those in favor of moving our next meeting to the golf course, say 'aye.'"

4. "I could have been the next David Hasselhoff, but noooo --I had to get that MBA."

5. "It's unanimous: We use the 'Deal or No Deal' model for payroll this next quarter."

6. "So, no one really batted an eye when I told them to re-use envelopes. But the 'bring your own toilet paper' memo didn't go over so great."

7. "Hey -- I'm hitting the dollar store after work to pickup up a few 'forced early retirement' gifts. Anyone wanna come along?"

8. "It was all I could do to keep a straight face when I told my staff: "Don't panic. Everything's fine."

9. "I just found a great new website to help with performance evaluations. It's called ""

10. "Oh, Lord. Is that the FBI?"

What else might be overheard in a meeting of managers these days?

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Stop Saying "When I Was Your Age"

This is a frightening time for everyone in the workplace, when fears abound about what latest economic downturn will result in layoffs. One of the most vulnerable groups of employees are the experienced workers with their higher salaries and richer benefits.

Older workers need to understand that this is the time to ratchet up their game. They need to be seen as vital by going after new clients, taking on new projects and just being seen as a dynamic voice in the future of a company.

And, most important, make sure you look the part of a vital employee. For example, are you still wearing the tie you got from your kids in 1990? Does your hairstyle involve a comb-over, anything with AquaNet or is hard enough to crack an egg on? Do you complain openly of your aches and pains and have no idea who Kanye West is?

If so, it’s time for some updating. Consider:

Visiting a personal stylist. Of course, you’d look ridiculous with a tongue piercing, blue spiked hair and biker boots. But you also need to have someone qualified analyzing your appearance from year to year. Visit a department store cosmetics counter (preferably with younger employees), a hair salon that caters to younger professionals and look into getting some new duds, even if it's just one or two more updated pieces. Also, nothing makes you look worse than clothes that are too tight, too loose or too worn, so get them altered or get rid of them if needed.

• Keeping up on current events. Not just what's happening on Wall Street and in politics. Pick up a copy of Rolling Stone magazine. Check into some of the television shows and movies being talked about by younger staff members. Look at some of the popular videos on YouTube and even visit Facebook so you understand the concept of how it works.

• Saying “When I was your age…” Never, never, begin a sentence this way. You might as well ask for a box of Depends and some denture cleaner. Try not to recall your glory days, but rather offer opinions based on experiences in your career that are timeless and universal.

• Offering contacts. There’s nothing quite as valuable to co-workers and company brass than the relationships you have formed over the years with vendors, customers, competitors, etc. There is be a certain level of trust among those with long relationships that can be highly valued in a competitive environment.

• Keeping the edge. Don’t rest on former glories. Always appear enthusiastic in offering new ideas or accepting new challenges. Don’t have a “been there, done that” attitude that says you’re bored, but you’ll do it because you get paid to. Use new technologies to implement your strategies. If you don't understand how to use some of the latest hi tech stuff, learn. Take a class or enlist the help of a younger worker in exchange for some mentoring from you in other areas.

• Making sure your game is sharp. Keep track of your daily accomplishments, goals met and problems handled. This will be a valuable record when it comes time for performance evaluation — or a discussion of your future with a company. Keep documentation of all projects you worked on, kudos from co-workers or bosses, and even favorable notes from customers.


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