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updated 7/9/2010 9:47:17 AM ET 2010-07-09T13:47:17

Sometime after noon this Friday, employees of many small businesses will be indulging in a favorite summertime perk: They'll get to go home early.

Despite the uncertain economy, many small business owners are still letting their staffers enjoy that extra time off at the end of the week. But Summer Fridays, as they're often called, have undergone some changes as a result of the recession. Some companies that used to shut down completely now have some workers in the office to help take care of customers or clients. That often means staffers take turns taking Friday afternoon off.

Other companies now give employees what amounts to flex time on Fridays, letting each staffer decide how to use their time off.

Some major corporations also have early dismissal times on Fridays, including food maker ConAgra Inc. But the practice is far from universal at big companies, and many small business owners understand that such perks can make their companies better able to compete for top workers.

Smart business practice
Karyn Ravin, president of New York-based Maletzky Media, says giving employees a few hours off is "being a smart business owner. You have to do everything you can to get people who will come to work for a small company." Summer Fridays have been common in the public relations industry for decades, partly because there so much competition for workers. And, Ravin noted, the competition is particularly tough in New York.

Steve Cody, managing partner at Peppercorn Strategic Communications, which has offices in New York, San Francisco and London, calls Summer Fridays a morale builder that helps the company hold on to its staffers.

"Our assets go up and down the elevator every day," Cody said. "They're as important as our clients."

Peppercorn started Summer Fridays at the suggestion of employees, Cody said. The staff is divided into A and B teams, and workers alternate taking a half day off.

Recession-resistant perk
While PR companies were hard by the recession, many owners decided against eliminating the perk even when they were having to get by with fewer staffers.

At Welz and Weisel Communications, managers "did have a discussion around whether or not we should change the time off or limit it, and we determined that just wasn't the best path to take," said Jayna Kliner, a vice president at the Fairfax, Va.-based firm.

"We knew people have to work more hours and work harder, and we still wanted to find a way to show we appreciated the work they were doing," Kliner said.

Welz and Weisel employees can leave at 3 p.m. as long as they've finished their work. And staffers all have smart phones and access to e-mail, so clients can reach them.

Jeanne Achille, CEO of the Devon Group, a Middletown, N.J.-based PR firm, also considered ending Summer Fridays. But, she said, it was hard to see "how not doing this was going to bring us more business," especially since many clients also take time off on Fridays.

Achille, who had to lay off some employees during the recession and hold back on raises, said those painful moves made it all the more necessary to keep Summer Fridays. "It's a recognition tool, to motivate employees," she said.

The evolving summer Friday
Some companies have changed their Summer Fridays practices in recent years. In some cases, the recession was the reason. Other companies have responded to employee requests for a more flexible approach to time off.

There's a new policy at Lippe Taylor, a New York-based PR firm. Instead of closing early every Friday, the company is giving employees one Friday off each month during the summer. They get to choose when they take the time.

There were several reasons for the change, said Jim Joseph, the company's president.

"What used to work with an older generation of workers and a different marketplace isn't working anymore," Joseph said. He said younger workers would rather be able to take a three-day weekend than work shorter days.

Moreover, after the recession, "we found that we couldn't close the office anytime and go completely dark," he said.

Some owners have had to experiment with different departure times. Achille found through trial and error that 3 p.m. works the best.

She used to have a 1 p.m. departure time. But, she said, "what happens is, the whole day is spent watching the clock." And when employees took lunch at noon, well, there went the day.

Achille also considered 4 p.m., but by that hour, the roads near her office are jammed with beach traffic, and "we're not giving anybody a perk."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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