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The Job Markets, They Are A-Changin'

  |  April 13, 2001   |  Comments

As the pendulum swings from left to right with a mighty swoosh, employers once again have the upper hand. Some are even going as far as denying email contact with the outside world. How uncool is that?

A friend of ours was a recruiter in Silicon Valley about a year ago. She dealt with job seekers who had strict demands about not only the kind of work they wanted to do (Java only) but also the kind of environment in which they wanted to work.

Employers in the tightest job market in recent memory were falling all over themselves to create an environment that was attractive to employees.

Pets in the workplace, after-hours pizza and beer, and Ping-Pong and foosball tables were de rigueur at many a start-up in Silicon Valley and beyond. In the new age, telecommuting flourished at traditional companies because office space was tight and it felt like a perk. A traditional company couldn't even conceive of not providing unlimited email and Internet access to all employees.

Fast-forward to the present.

The Industry Standard reports 77,190 layoffs since March 29, 2001. The tables are starting to turn. The pressure to produce is hitting a fever pitch. The workplace is not daycare for techies anymore. It's not a social club. It's not a fraternity house. It's a place where you go to work.

Now companies are turning to their once smug and cocky employees and flexing their management muscles. But that reaction is not always well thought-out.

When the bottom fell out of the job market, our friend had just started a new job at a financial-services company. Her first startling discovery: no email outside the company and no Internet access. That's right, this company -- which has an online presence like all the rest in its industry -- does not allow employees to use email to contact anyone in the outside world.

Though the company has not given a reason, we have our theory. And, of course, our opinion.

For the last several years, companies have wondered how much of a time sinkhole Internet access at the desktop is. Studies were suggesting that productivity suffers as employees spend their time surfing the Web or shopping online -- particularly since Internet connections at work are often lightning-fast compared with the slow, dial-up connections at home. But companies that didn't allow unlimited Internet access in the workplace were considered old-fashioned, tyrannical, and -- worst of all -- uncool.

The temptation among these companies now might be to say, "Oh, yeah, well I've got 77,190 people lined up outside waiting to take your job if you don't like it."

But is denying email contact with the outside world a wise move?

Email has become as ubiquitous as the telephone. Yes, employers run the risk of their minions using the telephone to call friends or conduct personal business on company time. Does that mean the telephone should be limited to calls only within the company? No. Nor should email.

Senior managers need to realize that people have personal lives. Employees (most of them) are grown-ups and should be treated as such. That means recognizing the impact of long commutes on employees and continuing to allow them telecommuting and other live-work options. Likewise, employees now need to realize that they are in the workplace to serve at the pleasure of the company, not the other way around.

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Greg Sherwin and Emily Avila

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