Must work and family be an either-or choice?

When William Freivogel, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was offered a job in the paper's Washington bureau, he faced a dilemma. There was only one opening in Washington, but there was a second Post-Dispatch writer in the family: his wife Margaret.

After strategy talks at home, the couple went to their editors with a proposal: They would share the job. Each would cover separate beats, giving the paper the expertise of two writers for the price of one.

Initial response was skeptical. ''I think there's a presumption that if you're working part time, you're going to put in your hours and walk out and forget it,'' Mrs. Freivogel says. ''We had to convince the Washington bureau chief that we were going to be committed employees, and the best ones for the job.''

The couple's arguments were persuasive, and the publisher agreed. Now, four years later, Mrs. Freivogel still speaks enthusiastically about the arrangement. She works mornings, her husband afternoons. Occasionally they share a byline, and they recently won an award for their joint coverage of dioxin issues.

The split schedule enables them to share the care of their four children, who range in age from 1 to 9. ''When the children are older and we need more money, we'll probably go back to separate jobs,'' Mrs. Freivogel says. ''But for now, this is ideal.''

It would be gratifying to report that the Freivogels are part of a growing trend toward job-sharing. But it wouldn't be true. Despite the presence of nearly 17 million women with children in the work force - many of whom desperately need an alternative to full-time work - flexible work options continue to be a rarity at most firms.

Even among top-rated employers listed in a new book, ''The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America'' (Addison-Wesley, $17.95), only a handful offer job-sharing, flextime, or part-time work. Not one provides on-site day care, and only two give child-care deductions.

If the three male authors notice this corporate conservatism, they never mention it. What catches their attention instead are glamour perks: country-club memberships, first-class air travel, stock options, and million-dollar fitness centers.

Yet if companies can offer stock options, why not flexible work options? If they can build state-of-the-art fitness centers in an attempt to promote employees' physical well-being, why not state-of-the-art day-care centers to benefit employees' peace of mind and their children's well-being? If they can design ''user-friendly'' computers, why not user-friendly - and family-friendly - workplaces?

The work force, once predominantly male, has changed dramatically in the past two decades. Now the workplace must do the same.

Consider the statistics: Nearly two-thirds of women with school-age children already work or are looking for work. And the number of children under 5 is at a 15-year high, up 9 percent since 1980.

It is naive to think that merely increasing the number of day-care centers will solve what has been called a national crisis in child care. Day-care remains an urgent priority, certainly, but it fails to address the larger need: more time for families to be together. Some of the fatigue and stress that beset working parents could be alleviated if employees - male and female - were given a degree of flexibility in arranging working hours.

What we need is nothing less than a quiet revolution in the corridors of corporate America. Not timid baby steps, but bold, giant strides toward a redefinition of what constitutes a job, an employee, a workweek, a workplace. A willingness to break free from the rigidity that pervades many corporate policies, and to experiment with new forms of employment that suit the changing forms of the American family.

What will it take? Part of the impetus must come from employers. Supervisors, managers, and personnel staffs must be encouraged to think creatively about ways in which jobs can be restructured to serve both the company and its employees. Employers will have to review their old assumptions, such as ''I know you're working if I can see your body from 9 to 5.'' They must learn to appreciate that the new arrangements are not a favor to employees but a very good deal for the company.

As Mrs. Freivogel notes, ''You tend to be much more organized when you work part time. You're not taking a lot of breaks, and you concentrate on your work.''

Most of the initiative, though, will probably have to originate at the grass-roots level. Employees and potential employees must write specific proposals, as the Freivogels did, explaining how alternative work options can succeed.

Not all experiments will work for every employer or every employee. But then not all conventional hirings prove successful either; ask any personnel manager. And as innovative firms such as Control Data, Polaroid, and Honeywell are proving, flexibility and family-oriented benefits, far from being detrimental, actually boost morale, cut absenteeism, improve efficiency, and increase productivity.

We owe it to employees and their families to adapt to the new realities. The preschoolers romping in day-care centers today will be the employees working out in corporate fitness centers tomorrow. Caring about them - and for them - is an investment in the future, not only of American business but of the American family.

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