Nine To Five No More: New Shifts For Labor

For generations, American life has revolved around a Monday-through-Friday, 9-to-5 work week. But the labor laws that defined this schedule date to an era when men went off to a factory and women stayed home. Today, the makeup of the workforce is changing, and mobile technology means work can get done well outside the confines of a 6-by-6 cubicle. Monday on Morning Edition, NPR's Jennifer Ludden begins a three-part series on efforts to make the workday more flexible. Ludden joins guest host Audie Cornish for a preview.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

For generations, American life has revolved around a Monday through Friday, nine to five work week. But the labor laws that define this schedule date to an era when men went off to a factory and women stayed home. Today, the makeup of the workforce is changing, and mobile technology means work can get done well outside the confines of a six-by-six cubicle.

Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, NPR's Jennifer Ludden begins a three-part series on efforts to make the workday more flexible. And she joins us now for a preview.

So, Jennifer, what are we talking about here in terms of flexibility? Is this just about working from home?

JENNIFER LUDDEN: No. Its about can you work from home? Can you work wherever you want? Can you work when you want? Do you need face time and meetings? If you do, can you work that out with the ability to also go get your kids after school? It's really looking at everything.

CORNISH: Mothers have been in the workforce for a while now, so whats driving this trend now?

LUDDEN: Well, they continue to grow in power. We've just seen in recent months, Labor Department figures have confirmed that last year, for the first time ever, women reached the point where they hold half of all jobs.

We know that in 70 percent of families where there are children, both parents work. And now we know that a quarter of all Americans are also caring for an elderly person in their family, and that number is going to continue to rise.

So, all these work-life conflicts are increasing, but what I kept hearing from everyone I spoke with is that there is another trend coming up pushing for flexibility, it's young workers - Gen-X, Gen-Y, the Millennials.

CORNISH: Men and women there.

LUDDEN: Absolutely. It's not about the kids, it's about a completely different attitude toward work, and this is driven in large part by mobile technology.

CORNISH: Right. Because most - many workers now have BlackBerrys and iPhones and I can attest to the fact that you never quite feel like you've really left work when you've got one of these things attached to your hip. How does that change what happens at the office?

LUDDEN: Well, in some places they're actually letting everyone leave the office. Maybe not all at the same time, but they're saying, look, if you can get your work on your laptop at home and wherever, let's let you. I profiled one company that is adopting something called the results-only work environment. It's about the most radical flex work you can get. Three percent of businesses say they do this. All employees, management down, works when they want, where they want. And it sounds like a Silicon Valley type thing, but I profile a county government agency in Minneapolis that is adopting this.

Let's listen to Carolyn Johnson(ph). She's 33 years old and here's what she said when I asked her to describe a typical work week under this new flexible program. She's like, I really don't have one.

Ms. CAROLYN JOHNSON: I go to work when I need to go to work. I do my work when I need to do my work. I have a really hard time tracking the 30 seconds that I'm answering an email. There have been nights actually where I have had something going through my head, so I was emailing at 11:15 at night. And then I could go to bed, have a nice restful sleep and not have to worry about, ooh, I've got to get to the office and get that taken care of.

LUDDEN: People who've studied this system say that productivity can really go up 30, 40 percent and more. I spoke with some National Institutes of Health researchers who also point out that flex work can have health benefits. There have been studies that show if you have more flexibility, you have less stress, better well being. And they say that this does not come necessarily from, you know, being at home with your laptop in your jammies. It comes from a sense of control over your schedule, even if you do have to be in the workplace to get your job done.

CORNISH: NPR's Jennifer Ludden. Her series on remaking the work week starts on MORNING EDITION tomorrow. Jennifer, thank you.

LUDDEN: Thanks, Audie.

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