Your new job, your new life
ESSAY: Attacks will mean radical change for workplaces and families, GORDON PITTS predicts
By GORDON PITTS, The Globe and Mail
Saturday, September 15, 2001
High-rise office employees shiver with dread as they begin their morning elevator ascents.
Nervous business travellers brace for long security checks at airports.
Children in school yards and daycares watch with anxious eyes as their parents drive away to work.
In the wake of this week's terrorist attacks, the mundane activities that make the global economy function have become more wrenching and more fragile.
The march of globalization, much heralded by management books, has not been halted, but it is undergoing a serious reality check. In important and trivial ways, business life will not be the same.
The crash of hijacked airplanes into New York's World Trade Center towers underlines the limitations of business. While your company can reward you richly, even offer you warm collegiality, it is government that is ultimately responsible for protecting you from terrorism and external attack.
One of capitalism's great heroes, Jack Welch, retired the week before Tuesday's tragedy, ending the career of a man known as Neutron Jack for his mass firings.
That nickname seems like a sick joke now. The chief executive officer of General Electric doesn't kill people and he can't save them. CEOs are not about life and death. Terrorists and governments are.
The attacks in New York and Washington highlight another humbling reality for the capitalist system: We can't count on technology to protect us because human passion and fanaticism can still defeat the most advanced system.
This weekend, many of us are reassessing our lives and our work. Here are the themes of the new business world that awaits us.
Borders matter. It turns out that boundaries are still relevant after all, for better or worse. You have only to look at the 30-kilometre truck lineups at major border crossings between Canada and the United States to grasp that the economics of free trade and globalization have changed. The delays will get shorter but they will still be more protracted than before Sept. 11.
The restrictions augur badly for a North American economy already on shaky ground. They also signal a weakening of the free-trade assumptions that have powered the Canadian economy through the past decade. "Canada simply needs to have a porous border with the United States," warns Karl Moore, a McGill University business professor and co-author of Foundations of Corporate Empire, a history of globalization.
It has also relied on the relatively free movement of people. Management consultancies, already reeling from declining business, must now rein in their roaming staff. Think of the cost of one extra hour of unproductive delay, extended over a firm with tens of thousands of highly paid travellers.
More road warriors will stay home as flights are restricted to must-go situations. Working styles will change: TV ads that show a mother calling home from a nice hotel room or a father rushing to catch the tail end of a school concert will look sadly out of step.
Companies may bulk up on cross-border shipments, with fewer and larger loads. It may mean the reorganization of multinationals, as they move some functions back to branch plants or spread distribution centres across the continent. Inventories could rise to reflect a relaxation of just-in-time manufacturing schedules.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard Business School professor and student of global business, expects the border tightening to continue, but she views the attacks as further evidence of global interdependence.
When the World Trade Center is hit, the world shudders. The events will, in fact, spur wider sharing of security resources.
"Let's not rush to assume the global economic system is going to be dismantled," says Prof. Kanter, author of the 1996 book World Class: Thriving Locally in the Global Economy.
Work will change. Until Tuesday, you might have assumed the worst thing that could happen at work would be a chewing out from the boss. Now, many offices and factories will feel a sense of heightened vulnerability. Expect much tighter workplace security, including demands for employee ID to be prominently displayed.
Cities and companies will re-examine their massive buildup of financial centres with vulnerable office towers and large concentrations of workers. The Cantor Fitzgerald experience is embedded in our consciousness. The New York bond trading company had 1,000 people working on the 101st to 105th floors of one World Trade Center tower. About 700 of them are believed to have perished.
Will skyscrapers still be built? Will companies take over, say 10 to 20 floors, in one of these towers? The powerful symbolism of being a tenant in one of the world's tallest office buildings will seem less appealing. Still, New York is New York, and there will be a strong civic determination to rebuild the financial centre.
Even so, teleconferencing and videoconferencing, already on the rise, will become more widespread, especially as the technology gets better. Electronic transmission of data and video will look more attractive than face-to-face contact.
Telecommuting has been viewed as an unaffordable luxury in the recent economic malaise, but it too will stage a comeback. Many workers will simply demand it, just to work closer to their families.
Government is still important. Justified or not, many Americans feel that airline security has been exposed as severely deficient, that this life-and-death service has been privatized and left to low-wage, underqualified and often indifferent workers.
A massive re-regulation will not flow from the Sept. 11 tragedies. But Prof. Kanter believes the events will make more Americans realize that governments need to be supported. The state, she says, has become more vulnerable "in terms of performing one of its primary objectives, to protect the safety of citizens."
Private capitalism, Prof. Kanter says, "only works if government is there to protect the public good."
The result will be some slowing or even reversal of privatization, in the same way that the water tragedy in Walkerton, Ont., has caused a reassessment of government outsourcing and cutbacks in Canada.
But the erosion of government over the past decade has badly undermined talent in the public sector. While North Americans have fretted, perhaps excessively, about the shortage of young software engineers, they have allowed the decline of public-service work forces. Prof. Kanter urges a renewed policy emphasis on recruiting and keeping government talent.
A sign of things to come: The International Air Transport Association, the airline trade group, said this week that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration should consider taking over the passenger-screening process rather than leaving it to the airlines.
It's about family. On Wall Street, careers are all-consuming. But amid the flames and wreckage of the World Trade Center, doomed people reached out by cellphones to their families, in order to know that they were loved right up to their last breaths.
There was a similar reaction among those who were stranded in airports. "In the midst of tragedy, where did everyone want to go? " asks Julian Barling, a professor of organizational behaviour at Queen's University, in Kingston. His answer is simple: "Home."
Former New Yorker Sandra Robinson, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, says that grief teaches "perspective" -- the feeling that everything that once obsessed you at work is suddenly minutely trivial. The challenge, she says, will be to hold on to that perspective after the events have faded.
Some experts have warned that the balance between work and family in North America has tilted dangerously toward work, and that the job has become a substitute for home and social life. After Sept. 11, many employees and their families will be less willing to accept that tradeoff.
Senior executives might take to heart the story of Howard Lutnick, the chief executive officer of Cantor Fitzgerald, who escaped the disaster only because he was escorting his young son to his first day of kindergarten. His brother is among the 700 employees still missing.