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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: You were way off the mark in your response to "Boss's Wife in Texas," who discovered that her husband's employees were making and receiving personal phone calls at work.

These days it's very difficult to find and retain competent people. The wise employer knows that people do have lives, and those lives do not always neatly compartmentalize into eight-hour blocks.

While some jobs, such as production-line workers, require 100 percent attention at every moment, most jobs simply require that a certain number of tasks be performed well and delivered on time. If workers can accomplish that, there is no reason why they can't be granted some slack to make phone calls, run errands, take extended lunches and work a flexible shift.

Many companies are restructuring their requirements so that productivity is the only thing that counts. Telecommuting, flex-time and other freedoms that were not dreamed of 30 years ago are now encouraged.

As we approach the millennium, companies now have a choice: Be inflexible and autocratic and pay the price in turnover and retraining costs, or structure their needs in such a way as to make the workers feel that they still control their lives. When I managed a graphics shop in the late '80s, I did this and had to fire only one employee for poor performance. Our turnover rate was far below the industry standard. -- NOW SELF-EMPLOYED, PORTLAND, ORE.

DEAR SELF-EMPLOYED: It will come as no surprise to anyone that I received a barrage of mail from people who thought my answer was wrong. (Only a few readers supported my answer.) Read on for some comments from a personnel specialist:

DEAR ABBY: As a supervisor in a large personnel office for 29 years, I have concluded that employees work much better when they can at least partially settle their personal problems by phone. After all, many of those with whom they are communicating work the same hours the employees do.

Working parents often ask their children to check in with them after school. It usually takes only a few minutes. Sometimes spouses must communicate with each other to determine the schedule for the day.

I agree, personal problems should be left at home -- but sometimes a phone call can avert a personal problem that could result in lost work time. Like it or not, employees do have lives outside the office and details to take care of.

Usually, other employees in the office will not allow a slacker to take advantage. When someone abuses the privileges to the point that it's unethical or hurting his or her work, management usually hears about it from more than one person.

The workplace should be an area of give-and-take for both employees and employers. If employees have a boss like mine, they will work twice as hard once they hang up the phone, not only because of the boss's understanding, but because they have solved their problem and can then focus completely on their work. -- VOICE OF EXPERIENCE, SAN ANTONIO

DEAR VOICE OF EXPERIENCE: I bow to your many years of expertise in employee relations. When I said that making calls on company time was a form of theft, I was referring to employees who make frequent, lengthy and often distracting phone calls. It was not intended to chastise employees who do not abuse telephone privileges.

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