Recently some of the Powers That Be at my workplace made fair and equitable adjustments to policies to cater for those staff who are part time. Without being asked. Without anyone kicking or screaming and without the presentation of carefully constructed business cases. Simply because it was right. Those of you who have ever worked part time are now gasping with incredulity. Those of you who have not may be wondering what the fuss is about.
Ever since I went half time after the birth of my first child I’ve been saying that working part time is a mug’s game. It’s only partly true. I choose to be part time. I want to be able to devote more time to my family, and to preserve my health and sanity in a way that would not be possible for me as a full time worker and part time parent (not that others can’t do it, but I know that I can’t). I am exceptionally lucky that my husband is also part time, and he shares the school drop offs, pick ups, shopping and dinner duties with me in a way that, truth to tell, is almost certainly more than his fair share.
Many organisations are reluctant to allow people to go part time. Despite rhetoric about work-life balance and family friendliness, bosses harbour deep dark doubts about the ability of part timers to appear and disappear at a whim. They believe part timers will be uncontactable at crucial moments, and will abuse their shorter hours in egregious ways. Ultimately they seem to suspect that part timers are not wholly committed to the organisation, and are therefore an inconvenient risk not worth taking.
All this despite countless studies showing that part timers are actually an exceptionally good deal – we give great bang for our buck. We tend to work more than the hours we are paid for, and commit ourselves to projects and schedules that are not reasonably compatible with our specified time fraction.
My suspicion is that this is because we all believe that we are part time on sufferance. That if we make too much noise, rock the boat too often, or actually take a stand and insist on fair treatment, our “luxurious” part time jobs will be withdrawn like a petulant two year old retrieving her toy when you don’t play by her capricious rules.
Certainly part timers can be inconvenient. In a school they can be a timetabler’s nightmare. In a corporate organisation there is a risk they may not be available at key times. They tend to miss staff meetings and cause difficult exceptions in otherwise straightforward policies. But as society struggles with the complex issue of work-life balance, part time work is an increasingly attractive option. More parents, both male and female, want to do more than visit their kids on weekends and kiss them goodnight occasionally. More people are caring for older relatives, as our population ages and resources fail to keep pace. More workers believe there is more to life than long days at the office.
I have had bosses in the past who have argued that my workload couldn’t be changed, even when my time fraction reduced by a third. I wasn’t naive enough to stand still for that one, but the stress of having to fight for fair treatment was particularly unpleasant, given that my daughter’s ill-health was the reason I had reduced my fraction in the first place. Part timers wait longer for promotions, and have to be ever vigilant against policies that don’t take them into account. Policies that mandate set hours of extra work regardless of time fraction. Policies that measure promotability by productivity, calculated always against full time hours. Policies that require attendance at staff meetings and other events that often fall outside working hours. Policies that forget we exist, and when they notice us say “well, that’s your problem, you’ll have to make it work.”
I am fortunate that I have an accommodating, thoughtful and supportive workplace. But part time is still hard. Sometimes I feel like a fly-in-fly-out worker, buzzing through the building and buzzing out again, never staying still long enough to be a full part of the organisation. It’s still a choice I choose to make, and on balance it’s worth it. But next time you envy me my “day off”, remember the flip side.