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Bosses are learning that flexibility builds loyalty

Imagine what would have happened 15 years ago if you had stepped into the boss' office and asked to work flexible hours so you could coach your daughter's afternoon Little League games.

The best response you could expect from most supervisors would be a blank stare. The worst, a pink slip: "You're looking for flexible hours? You'll find the hours at the unemployment office quite flexible."

Times are changing, slowly sometimes, but still changing.

Several weeks ago we asked readers to send in stories, both good and bad, about how their employers had treated them when they needed help balancing their home and work lives. Twenty-nine people responded.

Most of the letters were from happy workers, grateful to their employers for letting them work flexible hours or from home, or for giving them time off to deal with the death of a loved one or the illness of a child.

Some writers told stories of extremely flexible employers:

A Clearwater dentist who set up a nursery in her office for the babies of two workers.

A Tampa construction company that let its office manager work from home during her third trimester of pregnancy.

And another boss who provided his employee with the computer equipment to do the company's accounts at home. She had considered leaving her job because the two-hour round-trip commute between her Palm Harbor home and Klockner Packaging Group in Tampa was leaving her with too little time with her children.

But several of the letters were wrenching tales from angry people whose bosses flatly denied their requests for even small concessions. Most of those workers have since found other jobs with the flexibility they needed.

Fear of losing good employees has forced many employers to become more flexible. They are realizing they need to help employees balance their work and family lives if they want to attract and keep the best workers.

Charlie Peters, manager of compensation benefits and community affairs at Honeywell Inc., said his company's wide range of employee benefits has helped it recruit some of the best engineers.

In one case, a highly sought-after engineer agreed to come to work for the company in mid-Pinellas after learning about the on-site public elementary school for employees' children.

The new family-friendly regimes were not popular with every letter writer.

Some people without children wrote to say that they resented the new policies because they were inequitably applied. People with children were allowed to work less, they complained, while they had to work more to make up for it.

At the same time their requests for work flexibility were sometimes denied because they weren't family-related.

"If flexible schedules are only made available to employees with children at home or ill parents, then there will be a backlash," wrote Cheri L. Nelson of St. Petersburg. "It doesn't make sense to me to put criteria on the flexible schedules; that is like giving a raise to people who "need it most' instead of basing the raise on merit."

It didn't seem to matter whether the writers worked for a large or a small company. There were good and bad tales from both.

What seemed to matter more was how flexible the employee's immediate supervisor was and how desperate he or she was to keep the worker.

At a certain point in your career, whom you work for can be more important than what your job description is.

Even at progressive large companies, with many work-family programs on the books, the decisions about whether to grant employees the ability to work different hours or at home are often left up to the immediate supervisor, who could be an Attila the Hun.

"I work for a company that is inflexible, but have a boss that is flexible. I won't work for a manager that isn't," Nelson wrote.