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BLOOMINGTON - When Katherine Daugherty began her marketing research career 13 years ago, flex time remained a foreign concept. Her company didn't even offer it.

And the traditional 8-to-5 work day at Bloomington-based regional farm supply cooperative Growmark Inc. suited her fine. But two years later she and her husband, Kevin, had their daughter, Lena. Three years later, Eliza joined the family, which lives in LeRoy.

By then, Daugherty had advanced to a marketing communication position at Growmark, marrying her market research skills with designing communication material for the company's energy division.

Exponential increases in family commitments - especially hectic mornings spent delivering children to school and baby sitter - shed new light on finding a way to better balance work and family.

"Flex time is critical for me. My husband travels a lot (as Illinois Farm Bureau ag in the classroom manager). I come in at 8:30 so I can drop the kids at school," said Daugherty, who also has a 3-year-old son, Parker. "I couldn't stay in my position without flex time."

Daughtery isn't alone. A recent Families and Work Institute employer study found that 31 percent of surveyed employers provide flex time despite a volatile economy. Seven years ago, the study found only 24 percent of employers offering flex time.

The study, which surveyed 1,092 employers with 50 or more workers, further found that 44 percent of surveyed employees allow compressed work weeks versus 37 percent seven years ago.

For the study, flex time was defined as allowing employees to change daily arrival and departure times, allowing employees to move from full-time to part-time work in the same position, allowing employees to share jobs, allowing employees to shorten their work week, allowing employees to work at home or off-site, and allowing employees to gradually return to work following childbirth.

The study, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, further showed employers had made only slight cutbacks in so-called work life programs during the last seven years. Most of those cuts occurred in direct cost benefits, such as health care insurance, disability programs and pension/retirement plans.

Why the continued support for flex time? Surveyed businesses said offering the benefit has more to do with strategic business tools such as employee recruitment, retention and productivity than with supporting employees and their families.

Specifically, 47 percent of surveyed businesses said flex time allows them to recruit and retain good employees. Another 25 percent said flex time enhances productivity and employee commitment. Still another 6 percent said flex time reduces absenteeism and lowers business costs.

However, 39 percent of surveyed businesses said they also offer flex time to support employees and their families.

Smaller employers - those with 50 to 99 employees - were discovered often leading the way toward greater workplace flexibility. Study authors called the finding "quite surprising," given a common assumption that small companies face greater challenges providing flex time to fewer employees while still managing to complete required work.

But in 17 categories of work flexibility studied, small employers were significantly more flexible in 10 of the areas. Those included changing daily work hours, moving from full-time to part-time in the same position, sharing jobs and gradually returning to work following childbirth.

While Bloomington's Integrity Technology Solutions doesn't outright offer flex time to new employees, the computer network design and programming company evaluates each person's position.

Accounting manager Vicki Wessel serves as an example. The 10-plus-year employee started working a traditional 40-hour week, but she wanted fewer hours after her son was born three years ago.

"I would definitely say flex time can be a retainment tool. My husband, Jeff, manages the Joliet Junior College research farm and teaches. We live at Odell," said Wessel, who works one day per week from home.

Of 45 employees, Wessel said eight to 10 work from home or work flexible schedules. She noted the business lends itself well to flexibility. Some Integrity Technology Solutions full-time employees work 40-hour weeks off-site at Country Insurance & Financial Services, for example.

"We're good at telecommuting. One of our employees works from Plainfield. Another works 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and works the last two hours from home," said Wessel.

At Growmark, flex time became an official benefit in the mid-1990s. Gary Swango, human relations director, called the move "a sign of the times." Company officials saw an increasing need for employees with two bread earners in the family to find balance in family matters.

Growmark provides two forms of flex time. True flex time allows an employee to choose daily work hours such as 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Swango said about 10 percent of Growmark's Bloomington work force uses flex time.

Employees also can work a flex week. Typically, Growmark employees work 38.75 hours per week. Flex-week workers can compress the time down to a four-day week. Only about 1 percent to 2 percent of employees use the benefit, Swango said.

"Any flex time must be approved by the supervisor to make sure all duties are covered," Swango added. "I would not say it's been a deal breaker for a person interviewing here, but it's certainly been a plus to the benefit package."

Daugherty works 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 or 5 p.m. She often works through her lunch break.

"My supervisor (Krista Wolf) is wonderful to allow me the flexibility. I appreciate it very much and never abuse it," said Daugherty.

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