A few summers ago, Paul Mandell noticed that productivity at his events firm fell off a cliff on Friday afternoons.
"People would start looking at the clock around 4 p.m. and putting a foot out the door long before 5:30," said Mandell, chief executive of the Consero Group in Bethesda. "Instead of talking about work, discussions would shift to best hotels at the beach or where to rent a boat on short notice."
Rather than fight an uphill battle, Mandell decided to embrace what he calls the realities of summer.
As of Memorial Day weekend, the company has joined other area businesses, nonprofit groups and government agencies that allow employees to call it quits early on Fridays during the summer. Workers are free to head home - or to the beach, bar or pool - at 12:30 p.m., five hours earlier than usual.
"Friday afternoons are 'me time,' " said David Dorsey, 23, manager of program development at Consero, which organizes invitation-only events for executives. Dorsey spends his downtime getting his hair cut, buying groceries and calling his parents.
"It helps jump-start my weekend," he said.
Nationally, about 18 percent of employers offer some type of summer hours - whether an early close to the week or more flexible work arrangements - up from 15 percent five years ago, according to Edward Yost, a benefits expert at the Society of Human Resource Management in Alexandria.
In the Washington, District of Columbia, area - where white-collar jobs are more prevalent - as many as one-quarter of employers allow workers to skip out early in the summer, Yost said.
"Friday afternoons, as a rule, tend to not be incredibly productive," he said. "It makes it more palatable to give your employees a few hours off if you know you're not losing a great deal of productivity between, say, 2 p.m. and 5 p.m."
At Consero, the goal of the policy is twofold, Mandell says: to boost morale and give employees an incentive to stay focused the rest of the week.
The majority of the company's 30 employees work in sales, which means they have set quotas - a certain amount of revenue to bring in each month, for example, or a number of pitches they must make each week - that make it easy for the company to assess an employee's output. At the end of summer, executives will be able to measure how much work an employee put in - and how that compares with previous years.
Mandell says that it's too early to tell how the move has affected productivity but that he thinks the results have been promising. Employees seem happier and more efficient, he said. If it turns out that the early close helps productivity, Mandell says he will consider making it a year-round perk.
"I do have to say, personally, I enjoy having the extra time off," he said, even though he often uses the time to catch up on work. "It's nice to have a long weekend. It's amazing what it can do for your own personal morale."
At Leading Age, an advocacy group for aging-related services, employees have the option of taking a Monday or Friday off every two weeks, provided they make up those hours on other days. Roughly one-fifth of the company's 84 employees use the perk in a given week, according to Amanda Marr, vice president of communications.
Marr has taken three Fridays off this summer. She spent one traveling to a wedding in Boston and another day in Chicago. But her favorite Friday yet? A day when her 10-year-old daughter was at camp, her partner was at work and she had the house to herself. She spent five hours on the couch watching HGTV and got up just once - to walk the dog.
"There's something about a Friday off that's just so luxurious," said Marr, 43. "It's like 'Ha-ha, it's Friday. I'm not working, but you are.' You don't have to take a huge vacation to feel like you've had some relaxing time off."
Jose Chieng, a landscape architect at HOK in Georgetown, spends summer Fridays holed up in a shed behind his house, restoring old cars. The firm gives him every other Friday off in exchange for 10-hour workdays Monday through Thursday.
"Every day, for 25 years, I've had the same routine - go to work, come home - and it gets very repetitive," said Chieng, 65. "This is a great break from that."
Oliver Vranesh, an architect at HOK, starts his Fridays by making breakfast and watching "The Price is Right."
"I really treat myself in the morning," the 29-year-old said. "I take my time and make scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, maybe a nice omelet."
At Consero, some use their time off to run errands, while others stick around for rounds of bowling or happy hour with colleagues. When Mandell first announced the new summer policy in a morning meeting, employees clapped and cheered. Many said it was the best perk they'd received.
"It was the biggest surprise, and it was so well received," said Janine Werkman, 47, director of program development at the firm. Werkman spends Friday afternoons at the pool with her five children, ages 10 to 15. "Friday is my day to unwind. But by Monday morning, I'm ready to come back to work."