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As Stock Options Lose Luster, Perks Get More Creative

By Carrie Johnson
Sunday, November 12, 2000; Page L01

In the feverish attempt to attract and keep workers, stock options used to be the corporate ace in the hole for many tech firms.

But staying put loses its appeal when businesses close their doors without taking their stock public. The same happens when share prices of publicly traded firms sink to new lows, rendering discounted stock essentially meaningless to employees.

So smart high-tech firms are busy devising substitutes for the golden handcuffs of old. Anxious companies are beginning to offer employees a range of perks, including four-day workweeks, paid time off and financial instruments that grow with the value of the company's assets--not its position in the unpredictable market.

Workers are not getting the extras free. Like stock options, most of these new programs carry their own time commitments, dependent on employees remaining with a company for at least two or three years before the perks kick in.

Take Net2000 Communications Inc., a Herndon telecommunications firm whose share price once hit $40 but now flirts around $5. In keeping with that downward spiral, the firm has turned to other strategies to retain employees whose stock options are under water.

Last week, Net2000 announced that it will offer an optional four-day workweek starting in January. Kathleen Dickerson, the company's vice president of human resources, says the firm has yet to decide whether people who participate in the six-month trial would work four 10-hour days or four 9 1/2-hour days.

Top dogs such as directors and vice presidents will not be eligible, and sales personnel may take part only if they have met their quotas each year, she says. The scheduling of days off is the province of managers, not individual workers, so visions of a permanent three-day weekend are premature.

"You might not always get a Friday or a Monday off," Dickerson wrote in an e-mail message to the firm's 800 employees. But, she said, enjoying a weekday free from work also means avoiding clogged roads and being able to pick up dry cleaning and do other errands that consistently elude harried workers.

ThinkXML, a Rockville Web design and consulting firm, is opting to give some of its employees a longer break. The company designed a sabbatical program in June, in response to the boredom and burnout that characterize high-pressure techie jobs. People who remain with the firm for three years get a month off with pay and benefits, five-year veterans reap a three-month vacation, and workers who stay seven years enjoy six months off with pay.

"You hear about people in academics getting this," says Kim Copeland, the company's director of human resources. "Why not in a start-up? If you've worked for us three years, you deserve a break."

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