The start of a new year is a good time to reevaluate work policies and routines. Shifting schedules can reduce absenteeism, boost morale, and improve productivity.

One of the most widely used alternatives is the compressed schedule -- telescoping a 40-hour week into fewer than five days. Options include four 10-hour days; three 12-hour days and one 4-hour day, or four and a half days with four 9-hour days and one 4-hour day, usually Friday.

Physio-Control Corp., a $100-million maker of electronic medical instruments, meshes two compressed schedules for about 800 manufacturing and office employees at company headquarters in Redmond, Wash. The basic schedule for most workers is four 10-hour days; the other schedule is an innovative compressed weekend shift for 31 manufacturing workers, a group the company dubs its "weekend warriors."

The four-day schedule allows people to take care of personal chores on Fridays, before the weekend, or get a head start on vacations by beating the traffic to the mountains or the beach. "Cutting the workweek improves morale but doesn't adversely affect production, because individuals are capable of controlling their own outputs," attests Robert Lowy, Physio's director of human resources.

The weekend shift consists of three 12-hour days, 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., Friday through Sunday. The shift appeals to employees because it entails only day work, with an 11% pay premium (40 hours' pay for 36 hours' work). The major advantage of the Monday-through-Thursday break is the wide opportunity it gives workers to pursue other interests, notably continuing education from local colleges. Physio offers any employee 100% tuition reimbursement for job-related courses of study.

Courses taken include engineering, computer science, and business administration. About 20% of the company's work force participates in tuition assistance, about 85% of the "weekend warriors" participate, mostly to complete four years of college. The entire tuition-assistance program costs the company about $100,000 a year.

Lowy reports that each compressed schedule experiences "negligible absenteeism and negligible turnover rates." The weekend shift's primary purpose is to accommodate Physio's growth rate of roughly 30% a year. "We're a 'fast-growing company," he explains, "and we need to be in operation seven days a week. The weekend shift is certainly more palatable to employees than mandatory overtime."

To make Physio's unusual, compressed weekend shift feasible, a company needs access to demographic groups that prefer, or easily adapt to, weekend work. "Weekend shifts work best with teenagers, younger people, and working mothers," says Robert Zager, vice-president for policy studies at Work in America Institute Inc., a tripartite, nonprofit organization concerned with productivity and quality of working life, in Scarsdale, N.Y. "But to make any alternative schedule successful, you have to negotiate with workers. You defeat its purpose by imposing it on people."