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Reshaping a company, and doing it by storm

There's a slow way to overhaul an organization to streamline the chain of command and humanize the workplace. It often begins by calling in the consultants.

As the Burger King Corp. is learning, there is also a fast way: Let a hurricane do it.

Barry Gibbons, the chief executive and chairman of Burger King, initiated sweeping changes overnight after the company's headquarters in Miami was ruined by Hurricane Andrew, suffering $10-million in damages. About 300 of the 700 corporate employees lost their homes as well.

Gibbons immediately empowered his employees to decide when their eight-hour day would begin and end. He made job descriptions more flexible, encouraging staff members to take initiative to perform a wide range of tasks.

He also allowed employees to bring their children into the office if they were without child care and told everyone to take off all the time they needed _ "the mother of all flextime," he calls it. Some of these changes, including flextime and emergency child care, may be permanent.

Other adjustments have been made to make sure the work gets done. More functions were temporarily shifted to regional offices. But employees at headquarters say that the flextime schedule has forced them to work harder and smarter.

"We've learned lessons about communicating with each other," Gibbons said.

On a lighter note, the dress code was abolished because "most people lost their clothes," said Corey Zywoto, senior director of media relations.

The company moved into its temporary quarters just eight days after the hurricane.

Sitting in the cramped headquarters at old wooden desks, sharing phones and offices, people still got work done.

"There are three of us in an office," said Fred Burns, manager for Burger King's U.S. compensation division. "I thought I wouldn't like it, but I find I'm enjoying it."

Being on one floor, rather than six, has led to more interaction among employees. "The CEO pops his head in to ask how it is going. It's nice," Burns said.

The chief executive agrees. "I keep thinking we must not lose this," said Gibbons. "We have to pause and take the benefits back, not just go to the status quo."

One in an occasional series