When you ask about the future of the American workplace, you're inevitably told to come here and visit the automotive division of Harman International Industries.

But be prepared for a surprise.

Instead of a futuristic design, you'll find a down-at-the-heels complex of World War II quonset huts producing rear-vision mirrors with an array of machinery tht would have pleased Rube Goldberg.

Instead of a turned-on, tuned-out or laid-back work force, you'll find a group of pleasant, easy-going farm folk who are proud to hail from what they call the "buckle of the Bible Belt."

And instead of a visionary scheme for making work meaningful or consciousness-raising, you'll find Lillie Gatewood's explanation of what the highly publicized "Bolivar Project" means to those who participate in it.

"I don't know if people enjoy work any more than they did," the friendly, middle-aged Harman worker told a visitor recently, "but they sure do like going home when it's done."

Going home when the work is done. That sounds simple, but you won't find it many other places in American industry, with its fixation on time clocks and the eight-hour day. Nor will you find quite the same process by which the system evolved or a comparable openness in discussing it - which helps explain why people in search of the future come to this small west Tennessee town.

Corporate empires as large as General Motors, along with a hodge-podge of smaller companies, muncipal governments and even enclaves in the federal bureaucracy, are experimenting with "quality-of-worklife" projects, which attempt to break down the tedium and regimentation of work by giving workers a voice in how they do their jobs. Many don't like to talk about what they's re doing, or do so in hazy abstractions. The beauty of Bolivar people is that they talks about it in human terms, warts and all.

The idea of "earned idle time " - which, roughly speaking, means quiting when production quotas are met regardless of what time it is - was not concocted by a humane management or won by a hard-driving international union, although both were involved in the evolution of the plan.

Rather, it was devised by the plant's workers under the guidance of a union-management "working committee." Operating outside of normal collective sets general policy, attempting, as much as possible, to involve workers in decisions about their own jobs that are normally made unilaterally by their bosses.

It started in the early 1970s with the coming together of three unusual people: Sidney Harman, who was then chief executive of Harman International and is now Under Secretary of Commerce; Irving Bluestone, an international vice president of the United Auto Workers, and Michael Maccoby, a social psychologist and director of the Harvard Project on Technology, Work and Character.

They shared a belief that increasingly well educated workers offered creative resources that were untapped in the mechanized, regimented, bureaucratized world of work, and they shared a concern over its degrading effect on the human spirit.

They teamed up and bore down on Bolivar, acting largely as catalysts to encourage experimentation by the 600 (now 1.150) workers at the plant, which Harman had acquired earlier and operated in typical rule-book fashion until the project started in 1973.

The "earned idle time" idea came out of the polish and buff department and soon spread through most of the rest of the plant. Production quotas were set based on what could be expected from an eight-hour day, and teams of workers devised plans, subject to approval of the working cmmittee, for meeting these quotas in less time. What they did after they finished their work was their own business.

Classes ranging from ceramics to chemistry, from basic literacy to piano and choral conducting, were offered - attracting roughly half the plant's employees at one time or another. However, most workers simply went home, often to their farms, after finishing their quotas, sometimes as much as three or four hours early.

A newspaper, The Harman Mirror, was established by the workers and serves as an outlet for new ideas. Meetings are constantly going on all over the place, with decisions sometimes made informally and sometimes bucked up to the working committee. There is some job redesign, but not much. Mainly there is more time at home and a better climate at the plant, workers say. "Things like having people smile at your when you walk by," said Arthur McCarver, the general manager.

There are more tangible benefits as well. Production, in both quantity and quality, is going well, management says. Formal grievance charges are way down, according to the union. The last UAW-Harman contract was settled three months before the previous one expired, with "no big fuss," according to Augustus Howard, a Harman worker and president of Local 1303.

There are problems, though.

For instance, on some workers' jobs it's hard to accumulate earned time, and there is some resentment as well as reluctance to take on jobs that can't be done in less than eight hours.

At a recent working committee meeting, the shipping department tried to come up with a plan so they could participate. Management representatives expressed concern that the plan would impede production. Gus Howard, the union president, worried that it would overburden other workers. It was McCarver, the plant manager, who appeared to have the final say, asserting that "it's just not earned time." There were no votes, no bargaining in the traditional sense.

McCarver said it was not a management veto, only an articulation of consensus about a basic principle. Whatever it was - and there was no dissent from the union-appointed half of the committee - his viewpoint prevailed. The shipping workers were sent back to try again.

Interestingly, the hour-long discussion spawned ideas for engineering improvements on the flow of finished products to the shippers. A meeting on that subject was planned.

Anothr problem is that some middle-level management people feel left out or squeezed, a difficulty shared by many work improvement projects. "It's been a headache for me," said Francis Nelson, supervisor of the salvage department. "When people don't make idle time, they get upset."

After four years, the Bolivar Project has arrived at what the UAW's Bluestone calls a "state of pause . . . a time for assessment." Bob and Maggie Duckles, the young couple associated with Maccoby who act as resident consultants, are due to leave shortly and it has not been decided whether, or with whom, to replace them. Interestingly, the workers don't feel the project is independent enough to continue without outside help, according to Howard and others.

When Sidney Harman went to Washington, his business was taken over by Beatrice Foods, the Chicago-based conglomerate that produces everything from Samsonite luggage to Dannon yogurt and LaChoy Chinese food. Beatrice has been encouraging so far, but the absorption process is still underway.

No big innovations are in the works, but changes are constantly being made.

Take the "drop-in lunch" for the trim department, for instance, it started spontaneously several weeks ago and now appears to be a regular affair, with workers and supervisors grabbing some food from a machine and sitting down in a conference room off the cafeteria to discuss whatever is on their minds.

On recent topic was the mysterious disappearance of the little mechanical devices that are put on machines to count production. Several workers wanted Mack Scobey, the trim department superintendent to replace the lost counters, even suggesting formation of "snitch committees" to help him find them. Scobey said they'd only disappear again.Finally it was decided that (1) Scobey would buy one more round of counters and (2) no one would complain again if they disappeared. Everyone appeared to leave happy.

Some Bolivar-watchers from outside say the fact that the project hasn't moved beyond this stage is a sign of stagnation, of trouble. Maccoby views it differently. "It's a queston of whether you want democracy," he said recently, "or what the intellectuals think democracy should produce."