Work/Life: Groping for a New Balance


When a bomb exploded in the underground parking garage at New York's World Trade Center in 1993, Joan Zimmerman evacuated calmly from her offices in the north tower. Before she left, she even took time to change into a pair of sneakers and pack a gym bag full of files that were important to her business, G.Z. Stephens, an executive recruiting firm that specializes in placing talent on Wall Street. Within days of the bombing, Zimmerman and her employees returned to their office and got back to business. "It wasn't cataclysmic," she says of the incident.

Things were different on Sept. 11. There was no time for running shoes or briefcases. After the first plane slammed into the north tower, some 50 floors above their office, Zimmerman and her staff of four left everything behind and tore down 47 flights of stairs. They all escaped before the building collapsed.

For now, G.Z. Stephens is operating out of temporary quarters at a New York City law firm and slowly reconnecting with clients. Zimmerman, meanwhile, has been getting calls from friends who've been out of touch for years, including a classmate from high school. The tragedy, she says, has been a "wake-up call" to spend more time with family and friends.

COMING TO TERMS. "Am I going to try to take more vacations than in the past? Yes. Will I take the time to fly out and see a friend now? Yes, I will," she says. Comparing her reaction now to that after the '93 bombing, she adds: "People don't live by what could have been. People live by what is. This time, it hit home."

That's a sentiment shared by many people as they struggle to come to terms with the deadliest act of terrorism ever against the U.S. The tragedy isn't only affecting survivors like Zimmerman, or the thousands of families who've lost loved ones in the rubble. Even people who live miles from ground zero and weren't directly affected by the attack are finding themselves rethinking priorities and assessing the role work plays in their lives. Right now, a lot of "what-do-I-want-on-my-tombstone kind of thinking" is going on, says Sally Helgesen, management consultant and author of Thriving in 24/7: Six Strategies for Taming the New World of Work.

Of course, the struggle over balancing work and everything else has been developing for some time. Roughly 4 out of 10 workers in a study done last year by the Radcliffe Public Policy Center at Harvard University said it was difficult to juggle their job with other responsibilities. Nearly two in three said they would give up a chunk of their pay for more time with their family. But the attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon thrust the work/life issue into the forefront for many people, as they start thinking about whether they want to put in 60-hour workweeks or spend their weekends traveling on business rather than catching their kid's ball game.

ON THE RADAR. Some people are even passing up jobs that seemed like dream opportunities before Sept. 11. One, a 38-year-old professional in the Midwest, was seriously considering an offer in the Pacific Northwest in the days leading up to the attack. The vice-president position at a profitable VC-backed business fit in well with his career path, and the compensation suited him, too.

Then the disaster struck, and suddenly the job's location became an overriding concern. He and his family had always lived within a day's drive of their parents and relatives, but a move to the Northwest would deem that impossible. "A month ago, [I thought:] 'No big deal. That's why God created airplanes,'" he says. "After the 11th, the thought had to be on the ease of connecting with family. [Being close to them] went from being off the radar screen to being in the middle of it."

He declined the job -- and accepted another offer with a large multinational in Georgia. The pay works out to be about the same, although he's starting out as a manager in an executive development program rather than as a VP. Perhaps most important, he's also within a day's drive of home.

SAME OLD STRIPES? Not everyone believes that the tragedy will have a lasting effect on attitudes about work. Al Gini, philosophy professor at Chicago's Loyola University and author of the book My Job, My Self, argues that people evaluate their priorities at every critical juncture in their lives -- marriage, divorce, the sudden death of a loved one, and so on. The same assessment, he says, is happening now, but most people will eventually revert to their old ways.

An executive who logged 12-hour days before Sept. 11 might slow down for the next few weeks, but those workaholic tendencies will return. "We all say we're going to stop and smell the roses," he says, "but most people don't change their stripes. We're addicted to work. It's our way of fulfilling ourselves, of gaining status."

Still, people who directly felt the terrorist attacks may be the likeliest candidates to downshift. It's probably too early to tell whether they will, since most are just trying to cope with the shock brought on by the tragedy. "We're still in the healing stage," says Marilyn Puder-York, a clinical psychologist in New York City who's

working with executives affected by the Trade Center attacks. "Will people be making more demands for balanced work hours? I'm not sure yet."

"A SORE THUMB." Given the glum business outlook, it may not be the best time to talk to your boss about flex-time. Layoffs, which have been piling up since the beginning of this year, have surged again in the wake of the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon. The airline industry alone could cut as many as 100,000 jobs, and labor economists expect the job market to deteriorate further in coming months.

As companies retrench and look for ways to slash costs, "do you want to be the employee who sticks out like a sore thumb and says they want spend more time with their family?" asks Margaretta Noonan, senior vice-president for global human resources at staffing company TMP Worldwide. "Two years ago, when companies were doing anything to keep their employees, [workers] had a lot more leverage. Now employers are much more willing to lay people off." Indeed, Helgesen knows of one CEO in the telecom sector who gathered all of his employees on Sept. 12 -- one day after the attacks -- and told them that he wasn't going to tolerate any slacking off because of the tragedy.

As time passes, and memories of Sept. 11 start to fade, more managers may adopt that stance if business conditions continue to erode. Davia Temin, owner of public relations firm Temin & Co. in New York, isn't waiting for things to get worse. In a recent meeting, she exhorted her eight-person staff to hunker down and get back to work. Her speech, she says, didn't go over well. "It was like, 'When did you turn into General Patton?'" she says of the staff's reaction.

Eventually, though, her employees came around to her thinking and started logging the same long hours they routinely put in before the attacks. "Our corporate clients need us to move forward," she says. "In this difficult business environment, we need to be more focused, more hard-working." That's a message more American workers are likely to hear in the days ahead. For them, striking a balance between work and everything else will have to wait. By Jennifer Gill in New York


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