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How The Workplace Has Changed

Today’s work environment has transformed considerably and has been directly influenced by our various bubbles over the last 10 to 15 years. Thinking back to the workplace of yesteryear, suits & skirt were status quo and the idea of working from home was a novelty. Of course, the Internet economy made many things possible, but it also changed our perception of how workplace interactions and expectations work.

I preface the balance of this post as follows: My opinions are my own and are based on my own personal experience and observations, as well as personal accounts from acquaintances, friends and colleagues alike. No one experience is being singled out — not in prior or current employment — and is instead a talk about how things have changed over the years and how that will continue to change in future years.

So, with that said… what has changed? Let’s just break it down a bit:

1) Telecommuting / Work From Home

With certainty, the boom of Internet utilization at the turn of the century truly transformed our idea of how work can be performed. There are still some industries where this is difficult to impossible to accomplish (‘blue collar’ positions, retail, etc), but on the whole, many employers offer the option for people to work from home. This is great for mothers with young children or individuals that need to take care of someone disabled or elderly. Industry dependent, this option can save employers a lot of money. (Here’s a good article on why telecommuting jobs will increase going forward.)

2) Women’s Rights In the Workplace

The breastfeeding debate was going strong even until last year when it became part of federal law to allow women a reasonable amount of time to breastfeed or express breast milk. Some states have taken it a step further allowing breastfeeding mothers to be exempt from things like jury duty or public indecency laws. Additionally, sexual harassment — while not limited to women specifically — has expanded laws in the workplace requiring many companies to provide sensitivity training for how to properly treat one another.

3) Dress Code

One noticeable change is many businesses going from professional attire to more casual attire, most notably due to creative industry influence. Many pictures taken over the years clearly reflect employees showing up at work in a t-shirt and jeans, and that has trickled down to many industries across the board. The one clear holdout: the finance industry. Rare is the show of people working at a financial institution wearing anything but suit-quality attire, the most casual of which is a button down shirt and slacks. Meanwhile, other industries have tried to find their own middle ground, usually opting for “casual professional” or “business casual”, the interpretation of both being extremely unclear for some employees and employers alike. (This is a nice article about Dress Code Chaos.)

4) Workload Expectations

The Internet and real estate bubbles taught us a hard lesson: jobs are not always going to be there. As jobs were lost due to the downturn in the economy, companies were forced to contract and lay off employees. This clearly changed the workload expectations for remaining staff that, until now, were able to work without massive amount of pressure. The change consolidated 2 or 3 jobs into one position, expecting that sole person to take on that role. Understandably, stress levels have increased considerably in kind. A historical view of stress levels recently showed that since 1983, stress increased by 18% for women and 24% for men, citing increased economic pressure across a wide set of age ranges. As it is, Americans regularly don’t take vacation or use all their vacation days (dubbing us the “No-Vacation Nation“), many for fear they could lose their jobs while relaxing.

5) Wage Inequality

Many studies have shown that there is a widening income gap between high wage earners (over $250,000 per year) and low to middle-income earners. Most notably, the OECD recently noted that the USA has the highest share of people working in low-wage positions among industrialized nations, a telling sign that wages are not keeping pace with inflation and the possibility for a living wage. With the economic situation in the United States at a veritable standstill, we can only expect inflation to increase as national debt weighs down heavily on interest rates. Employers will likely be reluctant to modify wages to reflect a so-called living wage or to even keep pace with the rate of inflation as their own coffers grow slimmer.

6) Healthcare and Other Fringe Benefits

On the lips of any job seeker are, “Can I get a job that provides benefits?”. The answer increasingly is no. Employers are under a lot of pressure to limit benefit options to federal and state levels in order for them to ensure profitability and other key performance indicators for their organization. While it is customary that employers provide benefits, many do so with loopholes attached. Gone are the days were employers paid in full for or a majority portion of an employee’s health insurance coverage. It’s replacement are cost-sharing, high deductible plans that end up costing employees already not earning enough a lot of money. In 2011, health insurance costs went up an average of 9% in one year, forcing many into an untenable position of choosing between getting medication and feeding themselves.

Other fringe benefits have been on the chopping block as well. The traditional pension is all but gone from private industry, most currently using the 401k- contribution based model, and many public, government organizations are successfully moving new hires into a 401k model, thereby leaving the responsibility of an employee’s retirement solely to their own devices. Rare is the industry now where you see in-office perks like free lunches or massages. Although, some companies have managed to keep some interesting perks. Most industries have contracted those efforts and instead focused on profitability and performance measures.

7) The Social Media Impact

At the turn of the century, there was no Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn. Now social media impacts the workplace in a number of ways, from finding a job to potentially losing one. This is a continued tricky area for people to understand the full impact. Employers search social media to see who you are as a person, they check everything now. The recently quashed debate about asking for Facebook passwords to see your feed as a condition of hiring was a major point of discussion in 2012 (this is highly illegal, by the way). Fact is, we are living in an interdependent society that is heavily social media and social networking based. Who you know or who you ‘friend’ can either help or hurt you. Equally impacting are how businesses can be damaged by public libel for either their product or services. There have been numerous accounts of customers blasting companies publicly on Twitter for something that may have occurred, and smart businesses will be hip to ensuring their good name remains so. Policies for many businesses have been implemented to ensure that employees maintain privacy about company matters and that they would not malign the company name. However, some employees can’t seem to help having a loose tongue, resulting in terminations under this basis. It’s definitely become a serious issue.

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These are just SOME of the areas where things have changed. Frankly, the way the workplace works now is a far cry from what most remember and most Americans have had to transform how they relate to each other in-office and out. Finding a job and keeping it isn’t as straightforward as it once was, with obstacles so far reaching that they are mind-boggling. This new work environment can be a bit hazardous… so choose wisely and tread carefully.