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Getting Back Into the Mainstream Can Mean Navigating Rough Water

By Ina B. Chadwick

San Francisco-based branding and marketing man Alan Fraser (who asked that I change his name), spent fifteen years as a consultant with a home office before being recruited for a substantial six-figure job as a full-time salaried employee.

After fifteen years of working on my own and having freedom as well as working on diverse projects, he says, I was skeptical about working for one employer again, but the money and the opportunity to jump into a with both feet excited me. I ignored the absolutes I made years ago about never losing my autonomy.

Never underestimate the power of stupid money to sway absolutes, says Michael Drapkin, co-author of 3 Clicks Away, (John Wiley & Son) an e-commerce strategy book due out this winter. Stupid money means, youd be stupid to walk away. In the numbers we call it crazy money.

But for Fraser, autonomy wasnt what he lost immediately. His venturing into the mainstream work environment was detrimental to his senses and his productivity. I hated my workspace. It was startup in a storefront the equivalent of a sweat shop in the industrial era a dingy with bad lighting and an inadequate setup for the kind of work I do. I found myself anxious and unproductive.

Thats no surprise, says expert Robert Morgan, president of Fort Lauderdale-based, Spherion, a human capital consultancy for Bank of America and Dell Computers as well as many smaller companies. The number one factor for snagging and keeping free agent talent in this economy is the compatibility of the employee and the employers work environment.

Things have changed since the pre-tech workforce of the eighties, where lean and mean meant holding on to your job no matter what the tradeoff. And changed again from the workforce of the nineties, where getting in on the ground floor of the new e-commerce sector meant making a lot of sacrifices. Todays 24/7 workforce is calling the shots on how and where they want to alight physically, as well as emotionally. And well they should be, because theres a lot at stake for those who made an earlier break from traditional jobs. They know the psychological glory of a free agent work style.

While Fraser immediately signaled his ebbing productivity to his boss, a young CEO, by assuring her hed come in for every meeting requiring teamwork if she let him work at home, she was unconvinced. She was mistrusting and felt that people who work at home are not really working. It was discouraging and it turned into an energy zapping battle, says Fraser.

Morgan counsels companies to look very carefully when hiring free agents. If a company is not willing to change from a traditional, structured environment to a more employee-centric entrepreneurial company, neither party will be happy. Turnover will rise, and emerging talent will slink away, suffering from morale problems.

Drapkin says that big salaries can only keep an employee happy for three years. After that the talent moves on. He points out that consultants can be more committed to their work than regular employees.

Fraser wasnt sure he could last a year in what he called the big hype of a flexible worker-friendly environment. Eventually I convinced the CEO that the reason they hired me was because I was self-directed and exceedingly self-disciplined. I swore I would be there for every meeting requiring a team and that I would stay in constant contact, but the whole experience took a couple of good working months enthusiasm out of me. Investing all of my energies in battle left me less than enthralled with the numbers on my paycheck.

Morgan says hiring free agents can be safety-checked. He recommends implementing a system with questionnaires where theres no right or wrong, but where the employee and the prospective employer work out in advance if theyre a good fit. He says its a big mistake not to get the workspace issue right up front.

For instance, companies should ask:
1. Do you prefer to work independently
2. Would you rather work in a group
3. Do you like high structure
4. Do you prefer low structure

Fraser said that when he finally proved to the company that he was not at home loafing, and when the CEO stopped policing him, he was able to get an incredible amount of work done.

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Tue Nov 14 16:01:11 EST 2000