Now that warmer weather has arrived after a long and harsh winter, some businesses are finding ways to give their workers longer weekends by letting them take off early on Fridays — boosting morale without hurting the company's bottom line much, if at all.
That kind of flexibility in working hours is emblematic of a national trend, with an increasing number of companies allowing at least some employees to decide when and even where they work, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, a professional association with more than 275,000 members.
"At a time when many organizations are asking people to do more with less, providing workplace flexibility is a way to get at morale issues with a relative low cost, or no cost, to the employer," said Lisa Horn, co-leader of the society's Workplace Flexibility Initiative.
An example: At Mercury Marine Inc., the outboard engine manufacturer in Fond du Lac, Wis., white-collar workers are given the option of working 40 hours in 41/2; days and taking off Friday afternoons in the summer.
"It has become one of the most valuable arrangements or benefits that we offer folks "¦ " said Denise Devereaux, vice president of human resources.
"We don't see a drop in productivity. In fact, I think the exact opposite occurs. People are so excited about being able to have that half day off "¦ they're extremely focused in their regular hours."
The flexible hours from Memorial Day to Labor Day give workers more opportunities to get outdoors, and Mercury encourages the employees to go boating and use marine engine products.
"For us, it seems like a logical fit. Our employees are going to have a better understanding of how customers use our products if they're able to use the products themselves," Devereaux said.
Not all of Mercury's office workers get to be off Friday afternoons, and some people choose another day of the week. But the majority of the eligible workers, or several hundred employees, have chosen the compressed summer work schedules, according to the company.
Because of production schedules, the policy doesn't apply to blue-collar employees. "We haven't figured out the right recipe for (production employees), but it's something we are working on," Devereaux said.
In a recent survey of 1,051 organizations with 50 or more employees, the Society for Human Resource Management found that 43 percent of the employers allowed at least some people to compress their workweek, by logging longer hours on fewer days, for at least part of the year. That's up from 38 percent in 2008, when a similar survey was done.
Flexibility over when and where full-time employees work is on the rise, the recent survey showed, including hours in the office and working from home on occasion.
Small companies are more likely to allow people to change their work hours, the survey showed.
Quality Tool & Die, in West Allis, Wis., lets employees set their work hours year-round, provided business deadlines are met and, for safety reasons, people don't work alone.
"I am always here 10 hours a day "¦ so if someone wants to come in a little early, or take time off during the day for something, that's fine with me," said company owner Ron Loos.
Many of his employees start early so they can finish up when there's still plenty of time left in the day.
"My guys have been coming in (this summer) at 6 a.m. or 6:30, and they're out of here by 3:30 unless they want to work longer," Loos said.
Manpower Group Inc., the Milwaukee-based global staffing agency, gives employees the option of leaving early on certain days preceding holiday weekends. The company also provides free picnic lunches and live music on its plaza during the warm months.
Not everyone agrees that flexible summer hours are a good thing. According to a survey of more than 600 white-collar employees done in 2012 by Boston-based digital media company Captivate Network, nearly half of respondents said their employer offered special summer hours, such as working four 10-hour days with Fridays off.
Of those taking advantage of the flexible shifts, however, 53 percent who left work early on Friday reported a drop in personal productivity, and 23 percent reported higher stress levels from working longer hours Monday through Thursday.
"It resulted in kind of a negative workplace," said Scott Marden, vice president of marketing and research at Captivate, whose clients include Toyota, BMW, Dell, IBM and Hewlett-Packard. "The best thing to do is let people telecommute, working four days from the office and the fifth day from home. However, only 4 percent of the companies in the survey allowed people to do that."
But if done correctly, flexible work schedules won't reduce productivity, according to Horn, of the Society for Human Resource Management.
Some businesses say offering flexible working conditions can help with employee recruiting and retention.
Mercury Marine is considering extending its summer hours policy year-round.
"We know that it could be a deciding factor with some of our job candidates. "¦ A lot of our (company) neighbors in (Wisconsin's) Fox Valley don't do this type of thing," Devereaux said.
Companies have to be more flexible in their work schedules if they want to retain good employees, said Mark Tyler, chief executive officer of OEM Fabricators, a metal fabricator in Woodville, Wis. "That's kind of how the world is today," Tyler said.
At Milwaukee-based Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., employees can request compressed workweeks and flexible schedules throughout the year.
"I know of some working parents who arrange to take every other Friday off so they can meet their day care needs," said Betsy Hoylman, director of media and public relations.
Briggs & Stratton Corp. in Wauwatosa, Wis., allows schedule adjustments on an individual basis, said Laura Timm, vice president of corporate communications and public affairs.
"In 21 years, I have seen the shift occur in the workplace from a very strict 8-to-5 day to a more flexible environment," Timm said. "I have seen what I believe to be happier, more productive employees."