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July 1, 2008
New Workplace Paradigms
A large segment of worldwide manufacturing jobs are being replaced with automation. What’s left of conventional manufacturing labor is migrating away from the United States. We need new workplace paradigms.
Traditional manufacturing dates back to the industrial age, with the growth of large-scale production in hierarchically structured organizations. Large numbers of production workers were herded together in central factories, with time clocks and security guards, which gave the impression of walled-off prisons. Central locations brought office workers together in large, central facilities structured somewhat like factories. Today, few people wish to work in that kind of environment.
For much of the 20th century, most factories had full-time workers with employment contracts, mostly short-term. Most people remained with the same company for many years, until the time came to draw the company pension. There was a clear separation between working hours and home or leisure time, and also between a person’s years of employment and the abrupt transition into retirement.
This kind of employment has little place in today’s workplace. Rising health costs are making company-sponsored long-term health plans unaffordable. Further, long-term pension funds are becoming an unacceptable financial burden. This brings major changes in social and welfare protection and employment law.
In the information age, all the old models of labor relations—with all the assembled baggage of collective bargaining between employers and unions—is become increasingly inappropriate. Trade unions are becoming obsolete.
Today’s factory has geographically dispersed knowledge workers working ’round-the-clock. In the networked economy, value comes from the manipulation of information and knowledge much more than from the production of material goods. Individuals take responsibility for their own work, career and life, including the responsibility of ensuring that they constantly update their own skills. In exchange, the company undertakes to empower them in their work by removing old-style supervisory practices, replaced by new types of high productivity team-working and performance management.
Old workplace standards assumed that exited employees could and would always be replaced—employers were conditioned to treat employees as replaceable commodities. In the new global business environment, companies are forced to downsize on the one hand, and on the other, to develop ways to keep key employees from leaving.
Cross-functional teams with multiple skills must be linked to broad responsibilities, as part of a general shift toward job elimination through automation of anything that becomes repetitive. Downsizing demands the use of high-performance practices that emphasize cross-functional flexibility and broad job tasks.
Traditional workplaces with walls and square offices should be turned into open environments with common work areas and quiet spaces. The old, prestigious personal spaces should be replaced with team space. New office tools—computers, PDAs, wireless connectivity—should readily be available for all employees, facilitating effective communications and productivity. Offices should provide quick and easy file transfer and e-mail connectivity, whether the worker is in the office or at a remote location. Follow-me telephone numbers should be assigned to individuals rather than tied to physical locations. The concept of the “personal secretary” anchored to the office location becomes obsolete.
In the new paradigm, old-style human resources departments disappear. New “Facebook”-style networking should link employees (local as well as international) to develop camaraderie and a close-knit family atmosphere.
Factories and manufacturing workplaces should, like offices, make strong efforts to be warm, welcoming places; they should look good—small, efficient, clean and happy places to work. Productivity and efficiency will follow.
Innovation is the strength of the American workforce. The declining manufacturing sector can be stimulated through individual entrepreneurship and development of new workplace paradigms.
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