Can you get to the top working part time?


How difficult is it to get to a senior position when you don’t work a five-day week? And what about taking the next step up to executive level?

Maggie van’t Hoff is general manager of Retail IT at Shell and works a four-day week. There are definite benefits to this, both for family and work. She says her work pattern has made her more focused and allowed team members to progress their careers by taking on greater responsibilities. However, it would be unrealistic not to admit that there are challenges.

Van’t Hoff reduced her hours six year ago, after the birth of her youngest child. Her husband, who is also employed by Shell, was working full time and had to travel a lot on business. “I realised when I came back from maternity leave after my third child that that was the only way to make it work with three children going in different directions,” she says. Her children – now aged 12, 10 and six – are all in school now, and all at different schools, and she says having one extra day a week at home gives her the time to catch up on home paperwork, walk the dog, meet friends, go to the gym, be around for school drop-offs and pick-ups and connect with teachers.

Working four days a week, she was clear from the start that she wanted to have the same day off every week. “I wanted to have a consistent routine, for me, for my children and my nanny,” she says. “I try to protect my Fridays. I think it sends an important message back to my team.”

She works longer days on the four other days, but is usually home by 6.30pm.

Van’t Hoff says working flexibly makes for happier workers and feels we are at an important tipping point with regard to flexible working. “It can be a challenge for people who don’t work flexibly, but they have to be flexible too these days,” she says. She adds that ultimately working flexibly makes the workforce more productive. “If we look at the future workforce and at the way younger employees work it is clear they will need to and expect to work flexibly and technology allows us to do so,” she says. “Right now it is still generally the case that there is some stigma attached to doing reduced hours. It’s associated with women with children, but people need spare time to breathe. Life is accelerating all the time. It’s hard to be resilient. Flexible working gives people a little more space to be resilient.”


Asked about her own resilience, she says she has to recognise the particular challenges of working reduced days. Mondays, for instance, are always difficult for her because she has Fridays off and her weekends are full of family activities. Emails can pile up, but she has developed strategies for getting on top of these. She is very clear on her priorities for the day and the week, keeps those on a list in front of her all the time and makes sure she ticks them off. Even so, she is aware she can be “hit by curveballs” at any time, such as sick children, and needs to be able to adapt her schedule. “That’s life,” she says.

The rewards of her four-day week far outweigh the challenges, though. Maggie is keen to emphasise the importance of getting enjoyment out of both family and work and of having fun at work.

She has worked for Shell ever since she graduated in Computer Science and worked in the US for 15 years before moving to the UK. She has also worked for Shell in the Netherlands. She says she has struggled to recruit women in IT and thinks more needs to be done from an early age to promote IT as a career to girls. Shell has a Women in IT network whose work has been recognised by the Women in IT awards. Van’t Hoff says IT is a sector in which flexible and part-time working is fairly easy.

In addition to her day job, van’t Hoff is a mentor for other women in Shell and externally and was appointed president of the Shell Women’s Network in 2015, having previously been president of its Women’s Network in the Netherlands. She says diversity is a business issue, not a women’s issue, given that a more balanced team makes for better business. This has been a central focus for Shell this year she adds, with work being done on areas such as unconscious bias training. She believes the senior leadership are clear about the business benefits. Where the challenge arises is in line management and ensuring there are enough women in the selection pool for promotions all the way up the organisation.

“Although at entry level there is more or less a 50% split in gender, I look up from where I am now and I see a lot of men,” she says. “That’s why education is important throughout the organisation. People need to understand how lack of diversity impacts the bottom line and we need to promote good role models.” That means not just individuals from more diverse backgrounds, but also diverse teams. “Gone are the days when women had to tell senior leaders what they needed to do to promote greater gender balance. The focus now is on diverse teams of people who can show that it makes sense. Women are tired of talking about this. It is unfair to see it as a women’s issue or about our lack of confidence. That is a cop-out,” says van’t Hoff.

Moving on up

What about her own career progression? Surely the proof of whether flexible working and diversity initiatives can work all the way up an organisation will be whether someone working four days a week can get promoted to senior executive level? Van’t Hoff was promoted to the position she has now after she reduced to four days a week so she thinks it is possible to take the next step up the ladder.

She acknowledges it is a risk to see if she could retain her current work pattern or something similar if she were promoted, but adds that she feels there is a lot of support within Shell to help people be successful in their roles. “I’ll never know unless I do it,” she says, “but I will do it with my eyes wide open about the challenges.”

*A version of this article was first published by The Guardian.

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