Part time is a mug’s game

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rock the boat too often, or actually take a stand and insist on fair treatment, our “luxurious” part time jobs will be withdrawn like a petulant two year old retrieving her toy when you don’t play by her capricious rules.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.

4 thoughts on “Part time is a mug’s game

  1. Joe

    I think a significant reason managers are wary of part timers is that there’s a certain amount of minimum time for a staff member just to be part of the organisation … eg “staff meetings” either have to be attended, or the salient information disseminated and digested anyway (and if you miss the staff meeting while you may get the compressed version someone else has to take time out to compress it for you), eg all general memos need to be read, eg you still get (whatever time) personal reviews meetings, goal setting, eg you still occupy a fixed portion of the expenses of running HR and payroll systems (indeed your overhead in HR management time is probably larger while your specific details are discussed and accommodated) and so on.

    I’ve heard it said that a full time corporate-purpose employee costs a corporation about twice their salary… for all those overheads of HR, staff management, equipment and floor space rental, technical support services, telephone etc. Most of those costs don’t go down significantly for a part timer (though some can go down if you can share desks / hotdesk).

    As you say, someone who’s only on deck two days a week can (partly “therefore”) feel like they’re running to stay still… from the organisation perspective.

    (But some of that is probably quite a different story in a school environment.)

    1. lindamciver

      You have a point, Joe, yet some of it is not as valid as it seems. For example – the time taken to update part timers on what happened in the staff meeting: minutes should always be produced of staff meetings if they are at all relevant or significant (and if they’re not, scrap ’em!). So time is not taken to produce minutes solely for the benefit of part timers. It’s also for the record, and for the benefit of anyone who is away/otherwise engaged. It should be happening whether there are part timers or not.

      You’re quite right about on-costs, but as you point out there are ways of mitigating those, at least partially.

      Overall I think part timers are better value than they are assumed to be, and constantly under pressure to work outside their paid hours. Of course as teachers we work outside our paid hours anyway, but it is all too rare that outside-school events are pro-rata’ed for part timers. It’s easy to wind up feeling as though you have to prove yourself to be doubly loyal & committed in order to appear the same.

  2. Joe

    Note that I’m just looking at this from what might be “the other side of the fence” somewhat and considering why a *corporate* manager or professional team may have hesitations over the sense of value-for-money in part time staff… which is not at all a depreciation of the dedication of part time staff. (I myself enjoy “flexible workplace arrangements” and have in the past spent significant time three-days-per-week.)

    Thoughts on “staff meetings” I should extend to the more general “team meetings”. In either case in over 30 different companies I’ve worked for never have I been anywhere where *most* information that was communicated in team-or-larger meetings is also available in minutes or other written communication. Sure, general trends and affects-everyone changes get broadcast, but that’s not the real meat. For example from where I’m sitting right now I just watched a ten minute stand-up team-huddle of the team “next door”. Yes if someone happens to be away the outcome of that discussion will have to be deliberately separately communicated to them, but to the extent that someone is *perpetually* away those outcomes perpetually have to be communicated extraneously.

    My current wider business group a couple of times had people on two days per week. Both of them said two days was not enough to actually achieve anything at all, simply because of the member-of-the-team communication drag and general-staff-matters overhead. They had to find extra time to make up for it in order to actually do any work.

    A manager doesn’t want to be imposing that sense of overwork necessity on someone, but similarly they likely sense or even consciously recognise the somewhat static time consumption that’s needed for a team member just to keep up to date and on staff.

    For reductio ad absurdum … imagine a bulk standard setup of a team of about 4 full time corporate professionals with:
    – interdependency with other teams
    – workflows that take hours to establish or validate individual / specific requirements and days to complete
    If you replace those 4 full timers with 20 staff each working one day per week, imagine the effect on accuracy, total throughput, and lag times.

    1. lindamciver

      Quite true. And some of the overhead lies in considering the implications of part timeness on policies that have never considered it before. All the little gaps where part time makes a hitherto unacknowledged difference. And it’s the acknowledgement that there is a not inconsequential cost that leaves part timers feeling as though they exist on sufferance, and afraid of pushing back – even against manifest injustice – in case their part timeness is revoked.

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