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Sunday, April 29, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Who says 9 to 5 is normal? Local companies redefine the workplace

Seattle Times staff reporter

More flexible workplaces


The four companies profiled today are among nine Seattle-area businesses that recently won awards from a nonprofit think tank, the Families and Work Institute, for having some of the nation's most flexible workplaces.

Other local companies honored by the Families and Work Institute: ColorsNW Magazine; DHI Technologies; Macy's Northwest; Personnel Management Systems; WithinReach. On the Web: familiesandwork.org

Dust off your résumé right now. Because after you read this story, you're going to want a new job.

If you worked for Michelle Rupp's insurance agency, you'd get an extra month of vacation every five years.

You could bring your baby to work every day if Jill Wiedenhoft hired you at her nonprofit organization.

And if your boss was Karen Peterson, you'd get a laptop, a cellphone allowance and permission to create a wherever, whenever work week in which you might spend more time working at home or at Starbucks than at the nonprofit's Bothell office.

These businesses are rethinking the most fundamental aspects of work — how, when and where work happens — and learning that their employees aren't the only ones coming out ahead when they rewrite the rules.

While their approaches differ, these organizations share certain characteristics in adopting a more flexible view of work:

• They're using technology to alter the face of work.

What's the point of tying workers to a desk 8 to 5, Monday through Friday, if they're happier and more productive carrying a laptop and cellphone?

"You're here, or you're virtually here. It doesn't matter," said Peterson, CEO of the Puget Sound Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology.

• They trust their employees.

"It's giving up some control," Peterson admits. "You don't know if they're working for two hours at home and baking cookies for four hours." But you do know if deadlines are being met, if clients are happy, if new business is coming in.

• They are willing to experiment and make some mistakes.

"We don't change the rules when they get broken. We just get rid of the person," said Rupp, owner of NRG::Seattle. "You can't do this unless everyone's willing to have each other's back."

Read on for profiles of some of the nation's most flexible workplaces.

National Court Appointed Special Advocates Association

What they do: Training and technical assistance for 900 programs nationwide providing volunteer advocates for abused and neglected children.

Employees: 37.

Perks: A "bring your baby to work" policy.

The bottom line: Low turnover. Stronger and more-diverse job applicants.

Hiring? Not right now.

Some days, the kids almost outnumber the adults at National CASA's headquarters in downtown Seattle.

The nonprofit lets employees bring their newborns to work up to 6 months of age or for a total of three months.

Others bring their kids to work occasionally during school breaks.

Employees also have the option to work flexible hours. Some work 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., or skip lunch, or take long lunches. Some work four 10-hour days or work mostly from home. Others change their hours seasonally. "We have good people here, and we want to make this work arrangement work for them as well as us," said human-resources director Jill Wiedenhoft.

"To me, it just seems very obvious. The idea that work happens 8-to-5 and life happens outside that doesn't make sense to me."

U.S. Government Accountability Office, Seattle

What they do: The independent watchdog of federal-government spending; one of 11 regional offices nationwide.

Employees: About 100.

Perks: Employees work with their supervisors to pick which 80 hours they'll work every two weeks. Flexible workday and workweek options.

The bottom line: Low turnover.

Hiring? Yes.

Seven years ago, the U.S. GAO office in Seattle looked like most government workplaces. Everyone started at 7:30, took lunch at the same time and went home at 4:15.

Today, all 100 employees take advantage of the office's flexible work policies. Some work at home a couple days a week. Some work a few longer days so they can take every fifth or 10th day off. Workers may start work any time between 6 a.m. and 9:30 a.m.

Flexibility is a two-way arrangement: Workers change their schedules if the agency needs them in the office for meetings or special projects.

Offering family-friendly policies helps the office compete for job applicants with the private sector, said Stephen Jue, field office manager.

"The government isn't always able to meet private-sector salaries — but people are coming out of school looking for family-friendly organizations. They look at what we offer as a benefit."

NRG::Seattle

What they do: Independent insurance brokerage.

Employees: 12.

Perks: An extra month of vacation every five years; access to a personal coach; $1,000 a year per employee for classes of any kind, plus unlimited work-related training.

The bottom line: Revenues per employee are up 70 percent in the past five years.

Hiring? Yes.

In Michelle Rupp's perfect workplace, there would be no clocks. No schedules. No nagging sense of duty driving you to your desk by 8 a.m. every day.

There would just be a goal. And once you reach it, you would take the rest of the day/month/year off.

Rupp's business isn't quite that radical, yet.

But her approach to work stands out, especially in the conservative insurance industry.

"I wanted to create a workplace I would want to work in. It's that simple," said Rupp, a stylish 48-year-old with an easy laugh and a personality that fills the room. "You can be flexible and treat people like real people and still make money."

Employees are encouraged to work from home at least once a week; the company even provided a home computer for one worker. Most can choose when to start work as long as clients' needs are met. Rupp starts as late as noon several days a week and works into the evening. Others arrive early so they can beat rush hour or pick up a child from day care.

The staff gets a three-hour break one afternoon each month to schedule personal appointments.

Rupp gave an extra week of vacation to a new dad and encouraged him to work from home more. Another employee dropped back to part time and worked from home while recovering from surgery. The company paid for another employee to get her GED and gave her a $250 bonus once it was earned. Workers qualify for an extra month of vacation every five years. Some combine their vacation time to take a short sabbatical.

When it was Rupp's turn to go, she rented a house in Italy for two months and never even sent an e-mail to the office.

"I knew they could handle it. We had our best year ever that year," she said.

At lunchtime, the receptionist turns off the overhead lights, a visual reminder to workers that it's their hour to run errands, slip out for lunch or take a nap on one of the office couches.

In 1995, Rupp, a former interior designer, took over the agency her father had owned since 1973. The Northgate office bears her touch, with an airy feeling and carefully chosen artwork on display in a high-ceilinged room of low-walled cubicles.

"There's something great about being the kind of boss who says on a Friday, 'We've had a great week. Let's all just go home,' " Rupp said.

When she first took over the agency, Rupp experimented with what she wanted her business to look like and acknowledges she made some mistakes.

"Some people thought this was an easy place," she said. "They didn't get that we work really hard when we're here. We get people's full attention 7.5 hours a day. They're not on the Internet; they're not dorking around."

Rupp fired a couple dozen employees in those early years, some of whom took advantage of the flexibility Rupp offered.

Now, Rupp said, she has fine-tuned her staff; more than 90 percent have been with her since before 2000. Her flexible-work policies earned her company an award from the Families and Work Institute, as one of nine Seattle businesses recently honored by the nonprofit think tank for their nontraditional approach to work.

"We all own this company — we are a part of this," said account manager Trisha Mujadin.

Mujadin shifted her schedule with Rupp's approval to work four days a week after her daughter was born two years ago. This year, Mujadin reached the five-year mark. She's planning to take her son to the Cayman Islands in August during her extra month of vacation.

"For me, my family will always come first. And they don't look at that as a bad thing," Mujadin said.

Rupp has a sense of pride about carrying on the work of her father, a man who saw his agency as a way to improve the lives of everyone who worked there, she said. "Could you go to one of the larger agencies and make more? Hell, yes," Rupp said.

But at a price. Morale would be low, she said, and you would be judged not on your productivity, but on how much face time you were putting in.

"Walking out at 4:30?" Rupp said. "Forget it."

Puget Sound Center

for Teaching, Learning

and Technology

What they do: Help educators and others make better use of technology and encourage girls and minorities to pursue science, technology, engineering and math.

Employees: 14.

Perks: A flexible work week with many employees setting their own hours. The CEO turned an empty office into a "personal room" so employees could have privacy for breast pumping, exercising or personal phone calls.

The bottom line: A 25 percent increase in revenue from new grants and contracts in the past three years.

Hiring? Yes.

Shelee King George works a 40-hour week, but her office in Bothell is vacant three-quarters of the time.

On a March vacation to Mexico, George's oficina was by the pool, where she popped open her laptop every day to check in with co-workers and clients.

Some weeks, her job as a trainer and program specialist has her on the road, where her office may be a classroom in Florida or a Starbucks in South Seattle.

When she's not traveling, George often works from home in Mount Vernon.

For months after she was hired in 2003, George drove the 52 miles each way from her home to the office every day. After CEO Karen Peterson encouraged her to work from home, George started to realize that being at work doesn't have to mean being at your desk.

"It would be silly of us to say you need to sit in your office for 40 hours a week, doing the work we do," said Peterson.

When Peterson arrives for work, she's never quite sure who will be there. Most employees make a point of showing up on Thursdays for staff meetings, but other days, there may be only a handful of people in the office.

Workers track their time in an online database and update their calendars so Peterson can see at a glance who is where. "As long as it all balances out at the end of the month, we don't care," Peterson said.

It takes extra work to maintain a flexible workplace, she admits. "It would be a lot easier to just say, 'Everybody needs to be here.' "

But the flexibility lets Peterson attract and keep employees who would never work there if it meant driving to Bothell every day.

One woman drives to the office from her Bellingham home, spends the night with a nearby relative, then heads north the next day after work to finish out her work week at home.

Another woman lives in Portland and visits the office only occasionally.

A working mom commutes from West Seattle three days a week, works at home a fourth day and squeezes in her remaining work hours in the evenings or around her baby's naps on weekends.

Following her father's death, Peterson recently started taking Fridays off to spend time with her mother. While her dad was battling cancer, she often took him to medical appointments and used the hospital's wireless network to get work done if her father was sleeping when she arrived to visit.

"I used to feel a little apologetic with clients," Peterson said, worrying how their erratic schedules would be perceived.

"I don't feel that way anymore," she said. "We do really great work — it's just sometimes we're in the office, and sometimes we're not. ... I feel it's proven itself."

Jolayne Houtz: jhoutz@seattletimes.com; 206-464-3122.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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