working from home

Flexible work force

The American work force is headed in ways unimagined just a decade ago.  Careers are out and skill sets are in. Workers should think in terms of being contractors instead of employees, academics and futurists say.


Jobs will become even more portable because technology has made it easy to work from almost anywhere, including outside the country.

Accelerating technologies will create entrepreneurial opportunities for work, products and services.

Plus, an energy crunch and the country’s response to meeting that challenge will help define new jobs.

Meantime, the global balance of power is shifting. Where will the U.S. economy prove the strongest and the weakest?

And what is the future of economic stability? Is last year’s meltdown an anomaly or a chronic condition?

These trends and changes will transform our concept of working life as we know it and its endgame — retirement.

Flexible new work forces

Michelle Booker sometimes slides into work wearing her pajamas.

She jumps online at her home in North Richmond to do live chats as a customer-service representative for the Virginia Department of Taxation.

“I can do my job and have more time for the family,” said Booker, mother of Chloe, 2. “I can throw in a load of laundry during a break or unload the dishwasher. When I pick up Chloe from day care, I’m ready to be mom.”

Booker, 33, is part of a new work force with the technology to do their jobs from almost anywhere.

She is among 644 employees, or 58.5 percent of the Tax Department staff, working at least one day a week from home.

Some companies have taken the flexible work force concept even further.

Capital One Financial Corp., one of the largest employers in Richmond, allows some employees to decide whether to work a compressed week or a standard five-day week.

Mobile employees are in control of their hours, so they can coach a soccer team or do volunteer work. They keep connected through company-issued laptops, cell phones and Blackberries.

“I can’t think of any disadvantages,” said Shavonne Gordon, mother of two children, 5 and 7 months, who worked one recent morning from a Panera Bread restaurant near her Henrico County home.

“Our culture is not about monitoring employees; it’s about performance,” said Shelley Solheim, company spokeswoman.

“Flexible work solutions drive productivity, collaboration and satisfaction among our associates,” she said.

Solheim has chosen to be mobile, meaning she has no assigned desk. “I don’t miss having a desk at all. I love the flexibility.”

Workers as subcontractors

A job is not just something to get work done.

“It’s a source of identity,” said Joanne B. Ciulla, professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond and author of “The Working Life; The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work.”

“Work promises a lot of things to people. We invest a lot into work and when you lose your job, that investment is taken away by the flick of a pen.”

While companies encourage the notion of work as a central part of one’s life — offering day care, health programs and, in some cases, prayer groups — Ciulla advises employees to establish lives outside of work.

It is not a good idea in this work world to be so invested or to build one’s social life around one’s job, she said.

“Being a team player and committed to one organization is a risky way to think about your job,” said Matthew W. Rutherford, assistant professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business.

Ciulla said people put way too much importance on something that depends on the precariousness of the economic world. “Work is not stable and something can happen in another part of the world that causes you to lose your job,” she said.

The challenge is to establish a good track record and build one’s own brand, she said.

“Work still may define you, but people need to think of themselves more as contractors. A person does a good job so he or she can get more jobs.”

Workers must look out for themselves, said Robert R. Trumble, director of VCU’s Virginia Labor Studies Center.

They can’t rely on companies to provide fringe benefits, such as health care and deferred savings plans, as in the past.

“Fringe benefits are under attack,” Trumble said. “Once they are gone, it’s hard to get them back.” Many companies have reduced benefits in this recession.

And workers can’t rely on companies for continuous employment. “Most people will have multiple jobs,” Trumble said. “They need to make sure they are always marketable.”

In a fast changing world, that’s not always easy.

Consider, for example, that half of Trumble’s students eight years ago were information systems majors. Today, only 15 percent to 20 percent of his students are majoring in information systems. The systems jobs were sent offshore.

His students now major in a variety of disciplines, with no one area of study area taking precedence, he said.

New categories of work

From agrarian to industrial, service and the global economy, the U.S. work force is facing its next monumental shift.

Some workplace experts claim we are going back to the future with reinvented ideas for this country’s roots in agriculture and manufacturing.

Others say the emphasis on green technologies and sustainability will move the economy forward.

The nation is facing a nexus of energy, environment and economy, said Glen Hiemstra, founder and owner of, a consulting and Web company focused on helping people and institutions shape futures.

Most governments are banking on a green dividend, expecting millions of new jobs in environmental technologies and management, said Rohit Talwar, chief executive officer of Fast Future, a consulting company based in London.

Yet, for all the promise of clean technology jobs, the push to go green might destroy more jobs than it creates. By some estimates, for every green job created, 2.2 jobs will be lost.

Either way, automation — and the need for engineering to make it happen — will play a huge part.

“Making widgets itself is not sexy,” said Robert E. Spekman, professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

“What is sexy is the machine tool that makes the machine that makes widgets, especially if it requires new technology or innovation. This will keep us at the forefront when widgets become a commodity and allow us to compete on the basis of price in a global market.”

If something can be automated, chances are it will be, said Clement Bezold, chairman and founder of the Institute for Alternative Futures, a nonprofit research organization in Alexandria.

Like the travel agent who was replaced with online ticket ordering and the insurance salesman who also lost his job to the Web, automation continues to change the way we work and the jobs we do.

Jobs that don’t yet exist

Any interest in becoming a body-part maker?

“Due to the huge advances being made in bio-tissues, robotics and plastics, the creation of body parts — from organs to limbs — will soon be possible, requiring body-part makers, body-part stores and body-part repair shops,” according to a Fast Future study.

Other far-out jobs on the Fast Future list of jobs that don’t yet exist include:

  • Farmer of genetically engineered crops and livestock: “Works in progress include a vaccine-carrying tomato and therapeutic milk from cows, sheep and goats.”
  • Memory augmentation surgeon: Surgeons add extra memory to people who want to increase their memory capacity and help those who can no longer take on any more information.
  • Vertical farmers: City-based farms use water and nutrients, not soil, to grow plants in multistory buildings.

As futurists and other thinkers ponder the what-ifs, major forces are reshaping the work place as we know it.

Global power shifts

Whatever is flexible, innovative, collaborative and results-driven is in. If it’s repetitive and mundane, it’s outsourced — or offshored, sent to workers overseas.

Yet, even those forces are changing, as some research and development — once a source of strength for the U.S. — has migrated overseas, work place experts say.

And some call-center operations are returning to these shores, since companies sometimes can no longer justify lower costs with high customer frustration levels.

More surprisingly, the high cost of oil to ship products from other countries may spark a return of more manufacturing to the U.S., some workplace experts say.

“People want to wave a magic wand and say, ‘Yes, we want more manufacturing work,'” said futurist Hiemstra.

It won’t be that easy. Still, “I am skeptical that the pace of globalized labor will continue,” he said.

“A global work force assumes everything is driven by economics and work will only go where it is cheapest. The political mood, whether left or right, is to be more locally self-sufficient.”

People will seek out local food, for example, and pay a little bit of a premium — if it’s not too high, Hiemstra said.

Others see a continued shift of economic power to Asian countries, such as Japan and China.

“Like it or not, we are entwined with the movement of goods and the movement of cash around the world,” said Spekman of U.Va.

Consider, for example, that the Chinese are the largest holder of U.S. treasuries. If they switched currencies to the euro, the dollar would weaken, which would lead to inflation and stop economic growth.

“This is the most profound economic situation in 60 to 70 years,” said Peter L. Rodriguez, associate professor of business administration at University of Virginia Darden School of Business.

The U.S. labor market has shed 6.7 million jobs through July since the start of the recession in December 2007, and unemployment is likely to get worse, even as the economy shows promise of a recovery.

“A massive rebalancing is taking place,” Rodriguez said.

“The age of excess is gone and will stay that way. There will be less consumption in the U.S., and more outside the country.”

Don R. Hays, a financial adviser formerly of Richmond, said the future will not be based on the demographics, currency, banking situation or debt of any one country, be it the U.S., China, Japan or a continent such as Europe.

It will be dependent on the massive growth of the world’s labor force and consumer base, said Hays of Hays Advisory Group.

“The technology revolution produces a new flat world, which ignites a spread of democracy, which unleashes a huge sponge of new consumption, which launches the greatest economic boom in the history of the world,” Hays said.

Boomers and beyond

If futurists and educators agree on one major trend, it is the aging population in developing countries — and the implications it has for the job market.

Nearly one quarter of the U.S. population will be over age 65 by 2020.

The aging demographic will create job opportunities in health care, notably in self-care, but it will stress the system, educators and futurists say.

The emphasis in health care will be on devices that allow people to monitor their well-being, said futurist Bezold.

Also, people other than doctors will practice primary care, using expert systems to detect and monitor health problems, he said.

Health and other age-related issues aside, preconceived notions about retirement must change, said Trumble of VCU’s Labor Studies Center.

It’s unrealistic to think people can retire at the traditional age of 65. “People are living much longer, and that’s a good thing, but it also means they need to work longer.”

Consider, for example, people who enter the work force at 25, after graduate school, and retire at 65. They live until 85, meaning they spend fewer years working than not working.

Neither Social Security nor Medicare was set up for people living as long as they do now, Trumble said.

“I wouldn’t get too excited about baby boomers retiring any time soon,” said Matt Thornhill, founder and president of The Boomer Project, a marketing, research and consulting firm in Richmond.

The vast majority of people born between 1946 and 1964 can’t afford to retire, he said. Boomers were never good at saving, he said.

Many who are retiring from the corporate world are starting new careers. Boomers make up the largest category of entrepreneurs, Thornhill said, which could help reverse the growing unemployment numbers.

Via Richmond-Times Dispatch