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?

Lijit Search


Anonymous said...

We are also considering furloughs at our company and I think it will probably happen in the next month. I was really relieved when they decided to do this because it meant no one was losing their job. I'm not sure what I'll do on my time off since I'm not sure how long it will be, but I know that it will include some "me" time. I plan to read a book, go on a long walk and work in my garden if the weather is nice. It's so stressful at work right now that just like the women in this post, I'm lookinig forward to some time off. People really do work too much. And for what? To be laid off? I'd rather have a job where I had some balance in my life, and a lot of my friends feel the same.

Anonymous said...

As a result of the restructuring,some jobs will go away permanently. But others will be created. Inevitably, there will be creative destruction--and more than in the finance industry. In a perverse way, we have Bush to thank for some of this.

Anita said...

One thing that has really struck me as I interview people who have lost jobs is that so many of them believe they're going to be all right. They know they are facing a tough battle, but they believe that there's something they're going to gain from all this, rather it's a new perspective on having too much "stuff" in their lives, or an appreciation for the truly important things like friends and family. At the same time, I sense a steely resolve from many to create something new, to find a new path for their career. I think your term "creative destruction" is apt -- if history has shown us one thing, it's that this country is full of people that are innovative. I think this crisis will bring on even more of that.
Thanks for posting.

Elizabeth Pagano said...

Furlough = a leave of absence (often from the military) or a layoff. Sabbatical = a voluntary break from work. "Furloughs" are usually forced. Sabbaticals are not. Furloughs seem negative. Sabbaticals can change your life and your career. I'm being a stickler for semantics, I realize. But I love this post and don't want sabbaticals to be overlooked. The businesses that are offering voluntary sabbaticals as a strategy for temporarily reducing costs should be recognized - KPMG, Powell's Books, and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and others ( I agree that time off (preferably in a large-enough chunk to do something meaningful) will result in higher productivity and innovation...and so much more. Thanks.