Part time working used to be sidelined as a career dead end, but many are now working reduced hours and rising up the career ladder. Plus research shows part-time workers may be the happiest of all. Have they found the best of both worlds?
When Maggie van’t Hoff had her third child she went down to four days a week. Currently the General Manager of Retail IT at Shell, she says for her to have any work life balance requires “ruthless prioritisation”. “I have to sit down with my diary months in advance and plan. My husband works full time and also travels for work. We sit with the calendar and work out how to manage the logistics,” she says.
She returned to work full time after her first two children, but when she was pregnant with the third, a colleague asked her: “If you do my job what am I supposed to do? I realised that to make the team more successful I had to delegate more. It made me think what my role should be when I came back from maternity leave and how I would be able to manage if I didn’t change things.”
For the first two years when she went back she took a strategy job which involved less travel. Once she could manage her time better she was able to take on new challenges and last year was promoted to her current position which involves more international travel.
Part-time work used to be thought of as a bit of a career dead end. No longer. A growing number of staff are reducing their hours, but still managing to get promoted. They embrace all different permutations of reduced hours – whether that is job shares, term-time working or the more traditional reduction in days worked a week. What many have in common is a flexible approach and a willingness to make their work patterns work for both themselves and their employer.
The benefits for employers are that they get to keep experienced staff, who are often more motivated and, like Maggie, willing to go the extra mile. Interestingly, for instance, a recent RBS internal survey showed part-time workers are more engaged than other employees.
What employees get is more time with their families or to do other activities, such as college courses or voluntary work. Research also suggests that part-time workers are happier, not only than their full time colleagues, but also than stay at home mums.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro who analysed data relating to 1,364 mothers over a 10-year period found part time workers were less likely to be depressed and healthier and happier than stay at home mums.
“In all cases with significant differences in maternal well-being, such as conflict between work and family or parenting, the comparison favoured part-time work over full-time or not working,” said lead author Cheryl Buehler, professor of human development and family studies.
It’s not just women, though, who can see the benefits. In 2009 Mike Dean collapsed at his desk and woke up in A & E. He was suffering from an adrenal imbalance and his doctor warned him that his adrenal system could not cope with the constant levels of stress it was experiencing due to Mike’s full-time job as a senior manager at global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company Accenture and his full-on volunteer youth and church work. Something had to give, but Mike did not want to abandon his outside interests.
Accenture has a return to work and counselling service for people who have had to take time out of the workplace so when he started back to work it was on two to three days a week. The “Mr Fixit” role he had been doing was coming to a natural end in any event. At the same time Mike reduced his commitment to the football coaching he did and became a reserve coach.
He found that he was more productive at work and enjoyed life more. He decided that he wanted to keep working that way and Accenture agreed. It appears to have paid off. Mike, who has just been promoted to oversee service delivery for Accenture’s multi-million pound Business Process Outsourcing in the UK, Ireland and the Nordics – managing a team of 900 people, was recently named one of Timewise’s Power Part Timers, one of only six men to make the Top 50.
Mike, a dad to two teenaged boys, says the recognition is in large part due to Accenture’s forward-thinking policies. “They recognise that if they are to recruit and retain the quality of people they want then they have to work around the fact that the days of a person committing body and soul to an organisation have gone,” he says.
Another employer benefiting from a more progressive approach is Unilever which has rolled out an agile working platform around the globe and is open to new ways of working. Two of its staff who have benefited are Niamh Conroy and Katie Quinton who share the role of Global Brand Development Director – Becel/Flora pro.activ.
They have made the role work and put in extra hours to do so. They planned carefully how it would work as well as ensuring this was communicated clearly to their team.
The two say that, even though they have to work a little during their days off, the mental freedom that only working three days a week and having someone to share the load and bounce ideas off affords them is priceless. “The business benefits from that. We are a lot more self sufficient as a team,” says Katie, who has 14 years of experience in marketing. “We have complementary skills and double the energy. If one of us has not been in a particular situation before we can be sure that the other has and knows how to deal with it so the company gets a lot more than six days out of us.”
“It really shows that two heads are better than one,” agrees Niamh.