Three years ago the economy was tanking, technology companies were falling apart and employees were collecting pink slips. Yet Elizabeth Shea wanted to beef up benefits for her employees because, even in a downturn, keeping and finding talent is not easy.

But her McLean public relations firm, the SheaHedges Group, which represents technology companies, did not have a lot of money to throw around. So Shea decided to give employees time off during the summer.

"We never lost our focus on wanting to recruit the best people," Shea said during a recent Friday lunchtime, just about an hour before leaving the office to head to the beach with her family. "It flew in the face of the industry approach, [so] we ended up getting a lot more people attracted to us."

It's still an unusual benefit in the Washington area, says Betsy Friedlander, a principal at the local human resources consulting firm Willmott and Associates Inc. But especially for nonprofit groups, trade and professional associations and public relations firms -- often on the cutting edge of non-traditional benefits -- giving workers all or half of Friday off is becoming more popular. And there are a lot of those kinds of companies in the Washington area, so it's not that hard to find people taking Fridays off this summer.

"Companies offer it over the summer, thinking 'We can do it, but it has a definite beginning and end,' " said Kathy Albarado, president of Herndon-based human resources consulting firm HR Concepts LLC. "That way, even if it doesn't work out, it is temporary. If they choose to change it, they can."

At the American Psychiatric Association in Arlington, employees get every other Friday off, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, as long as they put in all their hours within the rest of the week. More than a third of the 230 employees choose this schedule.

"With summer hours, people want their longer weekend," said Theresa Perry, acting director of human resources. "It's generally a slow period for the company as a whole, so it doesn't create much business-operations conflict."

The workers schedule around each other, some taking Monday off, to make sure someone is in the office on Friday.

Employees at SheaHedges, the public relations firm, also stagger their Fridays so half the 20-person staff is covering the office at all times. And because employees who get the half Friday are allowed to leave earlier if they arrive earlier, there is often someone in the office by 7 a.m.

"What I found is that -- ironically enough -- it forces people to be more focused in how they spend their time that week to take advantage of their time off," Shea said.

Summer is often a slow time for these professional firms, as their clients go on vacation. Their employees are trying to leave early on Fridays anyway, these employers reason, so a little perk like a half-day every other Friday can boost morale without costing the company additional cash.

More companies offered non-traditional scheduling such as flex time, making it easier for employees to balance their personal lives and work, during the boom years of the late 1990s. Companies were hiring in waves and desperate to hang on to good employees, who could relatively easily move from job to job.

With the slowdown that started in 2001, companies have been cutting "soft" benefits so popular during the dot-com boom, said Richard A. Chaifetz, head of ComPsych Corp., a Chicago-based developer of employee-assistance programs.

"The massages, food, parties at night. The dot-com type perks have been for the most part eliminated," Chaifetz said.

But they have not been cutting flex time, according to a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, a professional association for human resource managers. More than one-third of the 457 human resource professionals the society surveyed nationally say their organizations offer some kind of flexible schedule, telecommuting options or compressed work week, a percentage that has been steady over the past few years.

Corporate Executive Board, a District-based firm that has surveyed companies on workplace issues, said the companies they studied have offered summer hours in recent years to enhance employees' work and life balance and it helped them retain employees. Most of the companies did not implement summer hours until the late 1990s, according to the Corporate Executive Board study.

Getting Friday off in the summers is still a fairly unusual perk nationally. Hewitt Associates, a human resources consulting firm in Lincolnshire, Ill., surveyed 150 respondents recently and found less than a quarter have summer work schedules.

But for people like Brian Remsberg, it makes sense. Because his company offers half-day Fridays in the summertime, Remsberg estimates he and his wife spend about three fewer hours in traffic when they drive to camp on Assateague Island. "Crossing the bridge at one or two o'clock may take only an hour to get over the bridge. Leave at six o'clock, it takes double," he said.

His company, Imre Communications, a public relations and marketing firm based on Capitol Hill and in Baltimore, offers employees half-day Fridays for all but four Fridays from Memorial Day to Labor Day. They must check voicemail at least once on their Fridays, and let clients know they are reachable.

The perk started six years ago after Mark Eber, a partner and chief operating officer, attended a conference for public relations and marketing professionals where a firm in California told him they had adopted summer hours. He and his partner decided that could be a good retention and recruiting tool, especially in the midst of an employee's market.

"We started doing a lot of things during the boom to attract and retain out of necessity. We thought very carefully about it and, frankly, my business partner and I like to have afternoons off, too," said Eber, a golf fan. He also likes to spend those hours with his 5- and 3-year-old girls.

One Washington area trade association offers summer hours to its employees because it has extremely tough surge-times when people are practically working around the clock, according to Jane Weizmann, a senior consultant with consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide, who consults with this client.

The summer hour perk "is hugely popular" among the company's employees, she said. In a focus group with employees, it was one of their favorite things about the company.

Greater DC Cares, a nonprofit organization that connects people with charity organizations and events that need volunteers, also has a compressed summer schedule. Employees are allowed to leave at noon on Fridays. Dawn Lowman, director of operations, treated herself to an afternoon pedicure Friday.

"Summer is our down time," she explained. "It really just gets the staff reenergized to get back in the fall. It's just a nice little perk."

Christine Keck spends the afternoon with her dog, Auggie.