QUESTION: What do you call an employee who works three days a week? A. A part-timer.
B. A hero.
The correct answer these days is B, at least when the employee happens to be Kathleen Betts of Mansfield, Mass. As an administrator in the Massachusetts Department of Public Welfare, Mrs. Betts uncovered a federal regulation that will give the state nearly half a billion dollars in additional federal Medicaid reimbursements. The windfall means state officials will not have to raise taxes or borrow money.
One headline dubs her "the $489 million heroine." Another calls the money "a budget miracle." As a reward, Betts, who earns $22,000 a year, will receive a $10,000 bonus - money she intends to put into a college fund for the couple's 9-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son.
Betts began as a full-time state employee 11 years ago, then scaled back her hours after the birth of her first child in 1982. She and another mother now share the job. If her superiors had refused to let her work part time and she had quit - an all-too-common occurrence in many companies - the Medicaid money may not have been found, at least for now.
Although part-time work is becoming more common and more acceptable, it still carries negative images in the minds of many managers. They regard part-timers as career dilettantes, assuming that anyone who puts in less than 40 hours a week isn't serious about a job.
Speaking of her own experience, Betts has said, "I hope this will serve as an example that part-time workers do contribute very much to the workplace. We take our jobs seriously. We usually end up doing five days' work in three."
That kind of increased productivity also characterizes another employment option - telecommuting via computer and fax. In national surveys conducted annually by Link Resources, the leading reason people give for working at home is to get more work done. Yet Thomas Miller, vice president of the New York-based research firm, observes that many managers continue to be "terrified" of letting employees out of their sight. Some executives fear that everyone will work at home, leaving a manager with no staff. B
ut that isn't realistic, he says. Not everyone wants to do it, and not everyone is in a position to do it.
When employees do arrange alternative work schedules, Mr. Miller finds, they see it as a privilege, and they reward their employers with high-quality, productive work.
Contrary to popular stereotypes, women with young children are not the only ones seeking the flexibility of part-time or home-based work. Among the nation's five million telecommuters, for instance, 54 percent are men.
Many more workers, male and female, would join their ranks if they could. A bumper sticker sighted in rush-hour traffic in San Francisco neatly expresses the longing. It reads: "I'd rather be driving an Apple."
As Kathleen Betts has shown, the Most Valuable Player on a corporate team is not always the one who spends a 12-hour day or a 5-day week in the office. The quantity of time worked does not necessarily bear a correlation to the quality of work produced.
Ironically, the same technology that gives employees a measure of freedom by allowing them to work at home or to maintain flexible schedules also possesses the power to enslave.
Managers in some corporations are turning into high-tech Simon Legrees as they count keystrokes on workers' computers or monitor employees' telephone conversations with customers - a tactic one cable-television company euphemistically calls "coaching."
The 40-hour work week, served out by employees doing lockstep in an office, neglects the quality of caring imagination that constitutes the most important element in all tasks above the dreariest drudgery. It will take more than one part-timer like Betts to change managerial skepticism about alternative work schedules. But if Betts is taken as an example of quality time in the workplace - of the creativity that blooms best in an atmosphere of trust - she may save the world even more than half a billion dollars.