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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Punching the clock, hump day, the daily grind - for decades, American lives have revolved around the 40-hour work week.

(Soundbite of song, "9 to 5")

Ms. DOLLY PARTON (Singer): (Singing) Working nine to five, what a way to make a living.

WERTHEIMER: But Dolly Parton didn't have a laptop, let alone a Blackberry. Today, mobile devices, home offices, and increasingly long commutes are changing how and when millions of Americans do their jobs. In the second part of our series, NPR's Jennifer Ludden tells us about one workplace built around this new reality.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: This is not a story about some Silicon Valley startup. It begins with a traffic problem on 35W in Minneapolis. The state doesn't want to pay to widen the interstate, so last year, it asked some offices along the route to let employees work from home. One of those may be the last place you'd imagine as a cutting-edge, 21st-century workplace. It's the Human Services and Public Health Department of Hennepin County.

Unidentified Woman: Now serving B, 596.

LUDDEN: The day I visit, the lobby is packed. But down a hall, in a cubical farm where walls, desks, and five-foot-tall dividers are all a dull, grayish beige, it feels like a ghost office.

Ms. ANN ZAGER (Supervisor, Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health Department): Here's another one, empty.

LUDDEN: Supervisor Ann Zager gives me a tour of empty chairs and black computer screens. Half her staff of 13 is not here.

Ms. ZAGER: I mean, sometimes I don't see or hear from them for days.

LUDDEN: But Zager can monitor the department's computerized inboxes, so she knows her staff is doing its job. That job is to determine eligibility for things like food and housing support, and, of course, there are still face-to-face meetings.

Ms. ZAGER: And have you applied for emergency assistance yet?

Unidentified Man: Not yet.

Ms. ZAGER: OK. And so when you're done here, you can go downstairs.

LUDDEN: But Zager figured out she only needs five or six staff to handle this. Everyone takes turns and otherwise schedules themselves as they wish - no questions asked.

Ms. ZAGER: At first, it was really hard for them. They would come to me and say Ann, I need to take off next week, or I need to do this. I'd say, are you on the schedule? No. Then I don't care.

Unidentified Child: (unintelligible) OK.

LUDDEN: Kara Terry has worked for the county eight years. These days, her kitchen table has become a home office. Nearly every evening after dinner, she with her laptop, her sons doing homework.

Ms. KARA TERRY (Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health Department): Good job. Did you have any words that you got stuck on?

LUDDEN: Terry says she's never had so much time with her children.

Ms. TERRY: Oh, gosh. I can go and have lunch with Brandon or volunteer at the kids' school and still get my 40 hours in. I just do it at a nontraditional time.

LUDDEN: Back at the county offices, human services representative Anna Reynolds is giddy about not having to make her 50-mile commute every day.

Ms. ANNA REYNOLDS (Human Services Representative, Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health Department): I don't have to come home and find my little bit of cold leftovers sitting aside, and hey, where'd you all go, because it would be 7:00 o'clock. So it's really nice to be able to have, first of all, hot food and fresh food, but to eat with my family.

LUDDEN: So where did this radical work system come from? Two frustrated human resources folks.

Ms. JODY THOMPSON (Co-Creator, ROWE): There's this belief that if you're at work, you're doing work, and people are not.

LUDDEN: Jody Thompson's a boomer. Her business partner Cali Ressler's a Gen Xer. They say 80 percent of companies' lost productivity is from presenteeism.

Ms. THOMPSON: I'm physically there, but mentally, I'm somewhere else.

LUDDEN: In the early 2000s, Thompson and Ressler were at Best Buy and charged with creating a flexible work strategy there. They soon decided that letting some employees telecommute or have a four-day week just wasn't working. Ressler says that it's because managers grant these special favors to some, but not others.

Ms. CALI RESSLER (Co-Creator, ROWE): They're envious, people feel like it's unfair treatment.

LUDDEN: And she says those who get the flexibility are stigmatized, because really, a lot of managers just don't believe you're working if they can't see you.

Their solution: Thompson and Ressler call it the Results Only Work Environment, or ROWE, and it's something three percent of business now say they do.

Ms. RESSLER: It's an environment where people are free to do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as their work gets done.

Mr. BOB BRINKHOUSE (Child Support Officer, Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health Department): I didn't like it at all, because I feel we're accountable to the taxpayer. Someone should know where we're at during our eight hours a day.

LUDDEN: Bob Brinkhouse is a child-support officer who's worked for Hennepin County 17 years. He admits he's from the old-school.

Mr. BRINKHOUSE: You know, I felt some people would fall behind in what they're doing. Overall I just felt that we were cheating society.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: The public wasn't too crazy about the program, either. Snarky letters to the editor said, essentially, how are you going to waste my tax dollars now? But Brinkhouse and his team forward their phones and use instant messaging to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. To his own surprise, he's come around.

Mr. BRINKHOUSE: The way it works, all three of us could be home and it wouldn't affect anybody. Now, one drawback is I get lonely at home. It's too quiet.

LUDDEN: Clearly, something is lost in a ROWE workplace: Call it an intangible synergy, that spontaneous brainstorming that can accomplish more than a dozen emails. But there is a strong business case for ROWE.

Ms. ZAGER: We get in about 8,000 pieces of mail a month.

LUDDEN: Remember Ann Zager? Her staff processes Hennepin County's public support cases.

Ms. ZAGER: Before we started ROWE, we were at about two weeks, two to two-and-a-half weeks out on processing. We are now down to five days or less.

LUDDEN: So productivity went up?

Ms. ZAGER: Absolutely. It went up big time.

LUDDEN: Productivity went up so much, rumors flew about possible layoffs.

In a pure, results-only workplace, paid time off disappears. Who needs it if you make your own schedule?

But Hennepin County is a union shop, so no one's tossed out such carefully negotiated benefits. Employees, though, say their vacation and sick time is piling up, so this might force the issue.

Another hitch: Old attitudes about work die hard.

Ms. ASHLEY EVERETT (Trainer, Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health Department): Who wants to help me with this one?

LUDDEN: In a basement conference room, two dozen county workers line a U-shaped table as trainer Ashley Everett tries to change attitudes with a little role-play.

Ms. EVERETT: Tina, let's talk about Tammy. Oh, my gosh, did you see that? Tammy, she only shows up at maybe 10:00 o'clock during the day. I mean, geez, does she ever work?

TINA: No, not really.

LUDDEN: Everett says for all the gossip-mongers know, Tammy was up until midnight finishing a company report.

In another role play, she shares a comeback line.

TINA: Ten o'clock and you're barely getting in?

Ms. EVERETT: Is there something you needed from me before 10?

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Sometimes at sessions like this, as the possibility of a new way of work sinks in, results-only co-creator Cali Ressler says she's seen boomer-aged men break down and cry.

Ms. RESSLER: They realize they've not seen their children grow up. They've given up hobbies. They've given up dreams to play the game.

LUDDEN: Ressler says she doesn't want future generations to look back on their work lives with so much regret.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: You can explore what it means to work for a results-only company and hear more from this series at our Web site: npr.org. Tomorrow, Jennifer looks at the toughest case for flex work: low-wage and hourly jobs.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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