What's Changed at Work While You Were Out

A deluge of new technology and other changes may seem intimidating, but they can work to your advantage

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You'll be pleased to discover that in the five or 10 years you've been out raising kids, the work world has loosened up a tad. Some of the trends you'll have to adapt to: ubiquitous smart phones, instant messaging and text messaging, the heavy reliance on search engines, and perhaps most favorable for parents, flextime and casual dress. So before you start your job search, take a refresher course on what's new:

Technology. Without a doubt, the biggest workplace changes involve computers and communication. Employees are linked to their jobs practically around the clock. There's been a revolution in smart phones like the Treo and BlackBerry that allow people to communicate by E-mail and IM (which your kids will soon explain, if you don't understand) and access the Web from soccer fields and doctors' waiting rooms. If you haven't used them yet, you've almost certainly been to a dinner party or school event where someone's hunched over in the "BlackBerry prayer," thumbing an E-mail response.

It might be alarming to think that work is suddenly a 24-7 commitment, but if used smartly, these tools can free you to make the best use of your time, on your schedule. It might be easier to chaperone a third-grade field trip, for instance, if you can stay connected to the office and respond quickly if your boss needs something. Of course, this will test your multitasking skills—but if you've juggled babies, you're already a pro, right?

Good Web skills are indispensable. You don't need to be a practiced programmer or a whiz at coding, but understanding some of the new technologies gives you a kit of basic business tools. Don't be freaked out by the baffling array of electronic devices and online offerings. Instead, concentrate on a handful of tools that employers want you to know how to use from the start.

First, you should get up to speed on E-mail and text messaging skills. To make the most of the tiny smart phone screens, you'll need to get comfortable with the shorthand ("BRB," instead of "be right back," for example). Again, ask your kids, and look online.

Needless to say, you should be familiar with Yahoo!, Google, and other search engines before even looking for a job. Also familiarize yourself with new Web browsers like Firefox and Safari, in addition to Internet Explorer, the old standby. Look for a few websites that follow your profession. Join informative E-mail lists. In addition to visiting the website of any company you're interested in, search for blogs or news stories (both good and bad) about the company. You might even learn some personal details about the people interviewing you—there's a surprising amount of info on the Web.

Social networking websites such as LinkedIn, MySpace, and Facebook can help you get job leads and seek advice. For now, don't worry about podcasts and business blogs—your employer will teach you if need be.

Flexibility. The upside to that dreaded BlackBerry is that many bosses are now comfortable letting their employees work from home or other "virtual" offices, since out of sight doesn't mean out of touch. In turn, employers are increasingly open to flexible alternatives to the standard five-day, 9-to-5 week.

A 2007 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that more than half of all companies offer some kind of flexible work schedule. That's good news for working moms. About 30 percent of working women with school-age children have flexible schedules, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, up from 16 percent in 1991.

Flextime has the most converts. When it comes to dropping kids off at day care or picking them up after school, this option is a blessing. You still work eight hours, just not the typical 9 to 5. You can come in late and leave late, or come early and leave early.

Telecommuting requires working from home (or from wherever you may be) via computer. With today's wired world, this is simple to set up, provided you have high-speed Internet access and a workhorse of a printer. If you're at home, the trick is setting aside quiet space for your office and keeping disciplined hours so you actually get work done.