Will the 1980s be the Decade of The Employe in the world of work?

A time when workers:

* Have a greater voice in the way their companies are run.

* Are relied upon to take initiative, rather than simply follow orders.

* Have greater freedom in setting their own work schedules to accommodate home and leisure needs.

And a time when employers:

* Pay closer attention to working conditions that may impair employes' physical and mental health, in the office as well as the industrial plant.

* Provide such employe services as alcohol and drug counseling, day care for children and physical-fitness facilities.

That may sound like a Labor Day dream, but it could be reality. These changes in the work place are part of a national trend, reports a group of business and educational executives who gathered in Washington a few months ago to take a glimpse into the years ahead. Their 20-page study, "The Future World of Work," sponsored by the United Way, has just been released.

The business world "is looking more now toward the individual," says United Way long-range planner George Wilkinson, who compiled the study. And the individual, better educated and with loftier expectations than in generations past, "wants to be happy."

He or she "wants something" out of a job. "It's his own quest for quality." As a result, the decade will be "a period of continuing focus on employe rights."

Adds Arnold Brown, whose New York consulting firm, Weiner, Edrich and Brown, helps companies plan for the future:

"A fundamental aspect of work has been the changing nature of the relationship between the individual and the institution. Before he [or she] had to accommodate to the organization. Now the organization has to accommodate to him."

There is the belief, says Wilkinson, that this is one of the ways American business can tackle the nation's lagging productivity. "To be productive, the employe has to feel good about himself and his job."

At the same time, he says, management is becoming aware that "stress, drug problems, bad eating habits all affect a worker's productivity." By helping "the employe in trouble," the company saves on the cost of "expensive health care" or of replacing him or her.

But before you storm into the boss' office to demand your due now, the study warns that other factors are on the horizon. Two important ones:

* Increasing computerization of the workplace, making jobs obsolete at a faster rate.

* The post-World War II baby boomers entering the managerial phase of their careers (ages 25-34), where -- because of their huge numbers -- the competition will be fierce.

Nevertheless, "All of these things are making the workplace a yeasty place of social change," says Ian H. Wilson, formerly General Electric's resident futurist and now a management consultant at SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif.

"If organizations and managers don't change, they're on a collision course with the future. People could get turned off."

But it's evident that change in corporate policies is already under way.

Consultant Brown, for example, says he knows of a couple firms who have hired philosophers to help resolve complicated values issues. What once was simply a marketing decision, he says, can now carry international moral implications. "People in management are not trained in moral issues."

United Way, an umbrealla agency under which a variety of charities solicit funds, brought the 21 planners and futurists together for the day-and-a-half brainstorming session because, says Wilkinson, "80 percent of our livelihood comes from employes and the working place." Changes in the world of work "affect the work place -- where we exist."

Looking ahead, the group sees the possibility of a major shift in the way the work place is organized.

"In the past, we organized work in a manner similar to the traditional military model," notes the report. "There were clear lines of authority, and the ideal organizational chart looked liked a pyramid, with decisions being made at the top and flowing down to subordinates for execution."

In the future, it continues, "organizational charts will more likely resemble spider's webs" where workers become "small entreprenuers" rather than "subordinates who only follow orders. The changing authority structure is coming about as more workers are called on "to participate in decision-making and study groups throughout the organization.

"These groups may range from quality-control circles to corporate social-contribution committees -- led in task teams by designated individuals. Individual authority varies as a person leads one group, but serves as a participant in others."

SRI's Wilson suggests a circle rather than a pyramid as the future organizational table, with "the manager at the center giving cohesiveness" and the workers "on the cutting edge, where I think they really are."

An "essentiall" point about the baby boom generation, explains Lynne Hall, general manager for corporate strategies at Shell Canada in Toronto and chairman of United Way's study committee, "is that it possesses a strong, positive self-image and a very definite view about what it wants to put into and get out of work and the work environment.

"Above all," she writes in a report, "The Future World of Work," she prepared last year for the American Management Association, "it wants a very much greater say in all aspects of work and work-related decisions and will recject any and all vestiges of rigid authoritarianism."

This generation also wants "substantial improvements in the quality of life in general, and the quality of working life in particular -- that is, in economics, politics and technology 'as if people mattered.'

"They already have the numbers and the knowledge," she says. "Soon they will have the positions and the power."

What else may the future bring to work place? Among other possibilities cited by the report and committee members:

* A cutback is levels of management to aid productivity. Says Brown: "We're over-managed.* There's an excess number of people in management ranks."

* A shift in this country from an industrial to an information society -- "brains over brawn." At the same time, there wil be increasing global interdependence among nations. Both developments will have a far-reaching impact on the work place.

(If you're at an age to be career-hunting, advises Wilson, consider communications and computer technology and international operations. "They're very clearly the waves of the immediate future." For the latter, "Acquiring foreign-language skills is tremendously important.")

* An increase in the rate of obsolescence of skills, leading to a need to "recycle people" whose jobs are outmoded. If a worker's skills become outdated, says Brown, "what new skills can you teach him?" For companies who look on employes "as an asset, a resource," additional training may be cheaper than replacing them.

* A shortage of industrial-type skilled workers to make the machines of the new technology.

* An older work force.

What all of this "boils down to," says Wilkinson, "is that the work place of tomorrow is going to be significantly different from the mainstream today."