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MORE TO LIFE THAN 9 TO 5 Alternative work schedules gain favor


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jeanne Eaker, a First Union product support consultant, works 10 hours of her 40-hour workweek from her kitchen table.

Tom McKeon, a NationsBank vice president, works 28 hours of his usual 50-hour week and takes home 69 percent of his former paycheck.

And Sara Engle, who quit her $28,000 job as finance controls manager at First Union when her son was born in 1989, now works four to six weeks at the end of each quarter.

This is alternative work scheduling -- creative variations on the traditional workday that employees use to handle child- and elder-care responsibilities.

"Creative scheduling allows workers, especially women, not to have to choose between their work and home," said Maryann Correnti, immediate past president of the American Women's Society of Certified Public Accountants, which published a report last year on the subject.

The Conference Board, a New York think tank, found alternative scheduling gaining popularity among firms with work-family programs.

Ninety percent of those surveyed last year had some type of alternative schedules. Among them:

* Compressed workweeks: Working 40 hours in four days.

* Job-sharing: Two employees sharing one position's hours and benefits.

* Telecommuting: Working some hours from home.

* Flex-time: Working at different times from the rest of the work force.

Kathleen Christensen, who conducted the Conference Board's study, said employee retention is driving the trend.

Ms. Eaker combines office and home work so she can pick up her daughters, Sarah, 8, and Kathy, 4, at the school day's end.

"I just felt it was important to be there for Sarah when things were still fresh in her mind," said Ms. Eaker, a six-year First Union employee.

She works from 8:15 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. at the office, and logs her other hours at night and on Saturdays.

Mr. McKeon, 43, a Columbia, S.C., native, reduced his schedule last October to care for his children, Bri Anne, 6, and Price Leigh, 3, after losing a live-in nanny.

Mr. McKeon said his wife, Martha Price, a physician, runs a busy family practice. She makes more money, so it made sense for her to maintain her full schedule, he said.

He works 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays. Then he picks up the children from school and day care, ferries them to gymnastics, choir, dance and piano lessons, fixes them dinner and puts them to bed.

Flo Phillips, First Union Corp.'s personnel director, said the company's policy on alternative work, established last August, recognizes it's not for everyone.

"The key factor is that supervisors and managers are willing and committed to making it work," she said.

It's not always easy.

"There are days when it's hard to get away from the office," Ms. Eaker said. "There are days I have worked all day, but that's not a problem as long as I know a couple of days in advance and can plan for it. The key is flexibility."

Ms. Engle, who analyzes financial information collected on banks, said her arrangement won't work for every job.

"Some jobs need attention every day and from the same person," she said. "In my job, they just need the work done on time and accurately."

Ms. Correnti, a partner with the Arthur Andersen & Co. accounting firm in Dallas, said alternative scheduling is attracting men who decide untraditional hours don't wound their careers.

Mr. McKeon, the NationsBank vice president, said he used to worry about his decision.

But it has worked for him.

"These two quarters have been the best two quarters I have had referring business to other bank areas," he said. "I think I'm working smarter."

Ms. Correnti said employees should take the initiative. She suggests employees consider employers' needs in their proposals.

"Determine what's best for you and your employer, figure out how many hours you can work and how long you want to be on this schedule," she said, "and establish a formal evaluation and communication period."

She said communication is crucial so that employees and supervisors can adjust the schedule if it's not working.

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