2001 - Working alternatives after 9/11
Wall Street traders went back
to work this week with flags in their hands and
a sense of purpose that might in the normal course
of events have been missing in their lives. They
were out to make money, as always, but also to
make a point - that work and life would go on.
Old habits die hard and restoring
the familiar routines is an important part of
the catharsis for those who live and work in New
York. This is unsurprising in a workforce suffused
with the Protestant work ethic.
It is far too early to gauge
whether the attack on the World Trade Centre will
transform attitudes in the workplace but one outcome
may be a greater willingness among employers to
look at alternative ways of working. How many
survivors, for example, will entertain the prospect
of working again in a tower block? How many will
look for alternatives when once they would have
flown to meetings without a second thought?
Massing tens of thousands of
people together in multi-tiered boxes the size
of a town is no longer necessary for many types
of work, including trading on the financial markets.
Licensed software applications exist that could
allow people to trade from their living rooms
if they wished.
Conglomerating people in offices
has become a habit but many of the supposed efficiencies
of this work have disappeared with the arrival
of the modem and the internet. Richard Arkwright,
the 18th century English cotton spinner and one
of the pioneers of mass production, brought workers
together in large mills, partly to make economies
of scale - he could use a single power source
to run his machines - and partly to prevent scrutiny
of his machines by those who would copy them in
defiance of his patent. Most significantly perhaps,
it allowed him to control and to profit from this
concentration of production.
The factory system that characterised
the industrial revolution was expanded on a grand
scale by those, like Henry Ford, who introduced
moving assembly. At the same time, office systems
proliferated to handle the masses of paperwork
demanded by trading and accounting systems. Factories
remain a necessary constituent of manufacturing
- but the office in its traditional sense is surely
becoming obsolete. Its main function today appears
to be to maintain a sense of workforce cohesion.
Various studies in the past few
years have highlighted the importance of communications
and maintaining relationships among workforces,
yet relatively few employers have been bold enough
to design workplaces to take account of such needs.
Close working relationships are unlikely to develop
among people sitting at their desks, staring at
screens eight hours a day yet this is the reality
of much desk-bound working.
A new wave of ergonomics research
and legislation in Scandinavia is transforming
the office. Most of the new desks bought for workplaces
in Denmark today allow people the choice of standing
or sitting at their workstation. Peter Kurstein,
a Danish-based expert in ergonomics, working with
the Office Institute in Denmark, says: "People
need variety in their work. They want to chat
to their colleagues near the coffee machines and
they like to stand in groups as they would in
the street or in a bar."
This is the way relationships
are forged in an organisation but static desk
work, where a colleague may e-mail a simple request
from a few yards rather than speaking, erodes
such relationships. If people need variety at
work why can't they mix their jobs so that they
do some work at home, and other work - such as
essential meetings and social encounters for the
trading of gossip - in the workplace? Some people
need the hubbub of the office to do their best
work, others need to be more detached. But people
should have more choice, where possible, over
where and when they work. Too often such variety
and flexibility is opposed by control-hungry managers
who want their staff where they can see them.
The need for a shared experience
in response to the events of last week may underline
the gregarious nature of work. People were talking
this week of the need to get back in to work.
But some are likely to harbour deep reservations
about tower block working, high above the ground.
If the loss of the World Trade
Centre leads to changes in workplace design or
working conditions it will not be unprecedented.
Ninety years ago, in 1911, a fire broke out in
the Triangle Shirtwaist company in lower Manhattan,
New York. Women were packed into overcrowded workshops
in the top three stories of the high-rise Asch
building. Fire spread so quickly that avenues
of escape were blocked. Many women, some with
their clothes alight, jumped to their deaths rather
than face the fire. Some 146 died. The tragedy
led to new workplace arrangements, regulations
and safety laws that still exist today.
Unlike the case of the 1911 fire,
no-one is saying after last week's catastrophe
that employers were negligent or that people worked
in poor conditions. But, in spite of designs to
withstand the impact of a large aircraft, the
World Trade Centre could not survive the explosive
impact of fuel-laden jets.
Many newer workplaces, particularly
call centres, have been created in single -storey
shed-like structures on the outskirts of towns
and cities. The high rise phenomenon has prevailed
where space is limited and city authorities have
been convinced that financial businesses need
to be in close proximity. How much of this need,
I wonder, is born of habit and the herd instinct?
Workers in specific occupations
historically have always chosen to congregate,
sometimes for safety, sometimes to find new work
if one source of work disappears. Networking is
still an important feature of the job market so
it may be unrealistic to expect any widespread
dissipation of companies in the financial markets.
The need to stay in touch is evident, even among
the more solitary professions. In trading houses
it is vital. But much of the contact is telephone-based,
following the diurnal rhythm of the international
Fear of losing out to competition
was stimulating the latest generation of high
rise plans. It may be that different fears - for
human safety - must be considered if the high
rise office is to overcome emerging phobias arising
from the terrorist threat.
When the understandable gestures
of defiance displayed by New York's financial
workers gives way to some sober reflection the
slavish attachment to the office may begin to
evaporate. If so, companies already concerned
to keep their best people may need to be increasingly
inventive in their definitions of the workplace.
Greater choice and imagination about workplace
flexibility would be a step in the right direction.
© 2001 The Financial Times.
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