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Jump-starting the weekend

After setting a sales record, employees at DBM, an international consulting and outplacement firm, got a reward: Friday afternoons off with pay this summer.

"We were just thrilled," said Jessica Denham, manager of the company's Fort Worth, Texas, branch.

Then there's Mindy, a marketing representative who sometimes grants her own reward. She headed to North East Mall in Hurst, Texas, at 2 p.m. one recent Friday instead going back to the office.

"I had to go to Waco, and I'm home early," said Mindy, who, wanting to keep her early exit secret, did not give her last name.

Across the nation, a lot of folks are getting a jump-start on the weekend on their own initiative or with the blessing of their bosses. Police in the Dallas-Fort Worth area say they brace for traffic jams at 3:30 p.m. on Fridays, instead of the usual workday bottleneck at 5 p.m.

And it's a trend that appears to be growing as businesses and government offices experiment with shorter work hours on Fridays _ or none at all.

"The weeks are sort of blurring into three-day weekends," said John Challenger, chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an international outplacement firm in Chicago.

"Technology, things like cell phones and laptops, has freed us so we don't necessarily have to be in the same cubicle every day," he said. "But it also means we can't get away from work, so we're fighting for more space on the weekends."

In some cases, a compressed workweek is being promoted by employers, especially during the summer.

A recent survey of 551 U.S. employers showed that a third of them offer options freeing employees from the traditional 40-hour, five-day week, usually resulting in three-day weekends. That's up from 23 percent four years ago, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

Larger employers, those with more than 500 workers, are even more likely to provide a choice, with 44 percent offering something other than 8-to-5 Monday through Friday, said Kristin Bowl, the society's spokeswoman.

The 7,000-employee Sabre, based in Southlake, Texas, gives employees the option of working full time in less than five days. The travel company also allows employees to vary their arrival and departure time. Happy employees are likely to be productive, have fewer absences and stay on, Sabre officials say.

Most of the 13,500 employees at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Fort Worth have every other Friday off but still put in 80 hours every two weeks.

"When we first started, there was a period where customers had to get used to it," communications director Joe Stout said. "But now pretty much everyone knows. People in key positions are available to get calls at home, but it's worth it to have the day off."

Tarrant County College shifts to a four-day week during the summer.

"I love it," said Susan Tomko of Alvarado, a telephone operator at the college's southeast campus in Arlington.

"I use Friday to run errands or sleep in," she said. "I spend a lot of time with my dog and at the pool."

Other employers give permission to staffers who want to move toward the door early. And some free spirits simply duck out on their own.

Mindy said she felt no guilt, saying technology has allowed her to be accessible to her bosses even when she is out of the office.

"I have a cell phone, voice mail, e-mail," she said. "I even have nationwide calling, so unless I'm out of the country, they can contact me 24-7."

Some companies are trimming hours because of the sluggish economy or because of a seasonal slowdown.

"What's popular right now is a 36-hour week," said Mark Rednick, president of MRI/Sales Consultants of Dallas, a division of Management Recruiters International. "If you can lop off four hours from 10 people's jobs, that's one more person that can be kept."

Not everybody favors four-day workweeks _ including Bedford, Texas, artist Marcia Weil, who had 10-hour workdays making sonogram machines at an assembly line in Inola, Okla.

"I hated it," Weil said. "It was Monday through Thursday, and come Friday, I was so worn out I didn't want to do anything. I had to wait until the weekend."

In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the popularity of no work or shorter workdays on Fridays can be seen on the highways.

On Fridays, "the rush hour begins much earlier than during the week," Grapevine police Sgt. Bob Murphy said. "Normally it's 5 or 5:30. On Fridays, it's 3 or 3:30."

Traffic counts back that up, said Michael Morris, director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, which serves 16 counties.

"Friday is the day we change our lifestyle. And it's a different type of lifestyle than it used to be," he said. "There's more recreational travel.

"We all work harder during the weeks _ we hardly see our families," he said. "We hopefully recommit ourselves on the weekends."