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Now Is the Time to Experiment with Work Design

By Mary Lloyd

Smart employers use a down economy rather than just enduring it. This is the time to experiment with alternatives to traditional 8 to 5 jobs. The successes among those experiments will provide a competitive edge once the economy heats up again-especially with attracting the experienced talent that keeps a company on top of its game.

Business is definitely not "business as usual" right now. Organizations are doing mandatory furlough days, cutting employees' hours-and salaries, and restricting overtime. Employees are intent on keeping their jobs. Everyone from the best client to the coffee vendor knows things are tenuous. All this results in a business climate where people are willing to accept change more readily. We are doing a lot differently as we work our way to the other side of this financially numbing swamp. But are you using those efforts to prepare for the next upswing?

The Baby Boom is 77 million strong. Behind them is Generation X, which is only 40 million. Then comes Generation Y. With 70 million, you'd think the progression would just be a matter of promoting more of them sooner as boomers retire. But as a group, Generation Y doesn't have the desire to shoulder the burdensome workload boomers and X'ers have carried so loyally. Boomers are going to need to throttle back if not retire entirely. Gen Y has no interest in being married to the job. The X'ers who might be the answer represent only 20% of the total workforce. How are you going to get the work done if no one is willing to do it "the way we've always done it"?

We'd be fools not to use the current need to innovate for survival to learn if there are better ways to shape work than "8 to 5 at the office" for the long term. What you discover now can take you a long way toward hiring and retaining the best when the economy heats up again. In particular, it would be wise to learn how to utilize experienced talent on a flexible basis.

Does what you have to get done need to be done by everyone at exactly the same time? Does everyone have to be in the same place to do it effectively? Are your people more motivated by autonomy than salary dollars? (Most are.) How are people reacting to going to three-quarter…or half…time? Are there segments of your workforce who have discovered that version works better for them? What are you learning about how these non-traditional versions of "jobs" fit with the rest of your organizational effort?

This is not about stiffing the experienced workers by cutting their hours and wages. This is about keeping your seasoned superstars on the payroll longer once things improve enough that they start thinking about retirement.

In a 2005 study done by the Merrill Lynch Foundation, 42% of the 3000 boomers surveyed said they wanted to be able to cycle in and out of work once they retired. They see flexibility as the real plus of retiring not total leisure. People who love their jobs and do them well are particularly likely to want to avoid giving them up entirely. If you can provide for that in how you design the company's work, you can keep established talent on board a lot longer.

In the next fifteen years, job design will change dramatically. It will change out of necessity to accommodate what Generation Y is willing to do. But it will also change to retain the outstanding employees old enough to retire. Learn what you can now to attract that latter kind of employee. Many of those seasoned workers would prefer to do the work they love on a less than fulltime basis and have skills, knowledge, and work habits you need. If you want to be ahead of the pack when the good times return, try things now to see what works in your company for attracting and retaining older talent on a flexible basis.

The trend of asking current employees to shoulder more is starting to play out. They are stretched about as thin as onion skin. Things are starting to turn around. Temp agencies are reporting a significant up tick in activity as companies buy time (and temporary talent) as they feel their way out of this recession. Eventually, you're going to need to hire. Before you get to that point, take a careful, open-minded look at how to best shape the work you need to get done.

In particular, explore using experienced talent on a part-time, project, seasonal, piecework, and/or telecommute basis. Do pilot projects in the disciplines where you expect to have the most trouble finding talent. And when you do hire full time, be creative in how you shape even that work. It will make a huge difference in the quality of your workforce-and your success as a company.

What kind of experience is crucial to success in your business? Do you have it on board? Is it going to be around for as long as you need it? If not, where can you find more? Once you have those preliminary questions handled, ask the really important one: How can we shape the work so that the talent we need wants to work for us instead of someone else? The businesses who innovate with the shape of work will be the ones who attract the best talent. The long slow progress out of this recession provides an excellent opportunity to try out ways to do that.