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Build for success > Managing People > It’s Time to Give Part-Time a Makeover

It’s Time to Give Part-Time a Makeover

By Debbie Schultz

Employees are asking for it, organisations are formalising it, and there are clear business benefits for the part-time professional role, but how do you actually make it work successfully in your organisation?

Step in the Right Direction

Vodafone announced recently that it would offer 16 weeks of paid leave to new mothers in all 30 countries in which it operates. They also now offer returning parents the option of working a 30-hour week, with full-time pay for the first six months they’re back. The policy change is aimed at attracting and retaining talented women, and has been described as ground breaking and a step in the right direction, supporting women to re-enter the workplace after having children.

Offering reduced hours is certainly a fantastic step in the right direction, and with policies like this, and the general shift away from the traditional 9 to 5, we are likely to see more and more talented employees working reduced hours in all levels of the organisational hierarchy.

Popular Option

In fact the demand for part-time hours appears to be growing. Our global research on career trends gathered feedback from 1,000 participants. Our aim was to better understand career drivers and aspirations in order to better inform talent, diversity and retention programmes.  We found 61% of respondees were interested in working a 4 day week or 9 day fortnight and would gladly sacrifice salary to do so.

There is also a growing body of research to suggest that flexible work practices pay off for employers. A Working Mom’s Research Survey of 50,000 US employees (reported by the Corporate Executive Board) found that people who are happy with their work-life benefits are also likely to work 21% harder, and are 33% more likely to stay.

The attraction of working reduced hours is pretty straightforward: flexibility and time to care for children, while at the same time still contributing to the family’s income. There is also usually a very strong pull to continue to contribute to their profession in a meaningful and rewarding way, leveraging years of experience and acquired talents.

On the whole, reduced hours can look like a very alluring proposition – the perfect middle ground – a mix of fulfilling and stimulating work, and an opportunity to play a significant caregiving role, but not predominantly one over the other. There are clear benefits for both employee and employer, but the critical question remains, how do you actually make it work successfully in your organisation?

How Do You Make It Work?

There are many examples of successful arrangements, with both organisations and individuals balancing give-and-take to make it work.

However, occasionally well intended arrangements go awry for a number of reasons. Sometimes the role is still really a full-time job masquerading as part-time. In some cases team communication suffers as people struggle to find meeting times to suit all, and work may bottleneck as key decisions are delayed while part-timers are out of the office.

Also career progression for professionals in part-time roles can sometimes falter. It may be that they are overlooked for critical stretch assignments and professional development opportunities, limiting future career growth and advancement. However, there is another much less discussed barrier to success which interestingly turns out to be the very phrase ‘part-time’.

The Problem with the Word ‘Part-Time‘

Research into unconscious bias suggests that just being labelled as a part-timer can potentially reduce your status in the eyes of others. This happens in organisational cultures that value and reward face-time and visibility in the office, and perceived commitment (demonstrated by working full-time and often long hours). Because of this, the contribution of part-time workers may be undervalued and not rewarded.

Some part-timers don’t help themselves in this regard, often referring to themselves as “only part-time”, further reducing their value in their own eyes and the eyes of others.

Unfortunately in an effort to demonstrate commitment, some flexible workers end up working much longer than required to prove themselves worthy, making up time in the weekend and evenings. Researchers have coined this phenomenon ‘the flexibility stigma’, as discussed in an article by the Atlantic, The Hidden Cost of a Flexible Job.

So, How are Organisations Tackling This?

There are many organisations presenting a range of innovative solutions to encourage more flexibility at work and acceptance of different work habits.

One New Zealand bank we have worked with has had great success in this area, winning an international diversity award for its efforts. Something as simple as a job title change can make all the difference. Critical customer service staff covering only peak hours were historically referred to as casual staff, and now are known as key time staff in an effort to boost confidence and status in this very important group of workers crucial to the businesses customer service delivery.

Leadership Programs

Targeted leadership programs were also offered to people leaders. Their purpose was to combine the latest thinking in conscious and unconscious bias, with tools to support leaders to have tailored and customised career conversations with all team members to facilitate optimal career-life blend.

Leaders worked through a range of practical tools and ways of thinking to support these conversations, such as discussing and better understanding typical career stages, career derailers, the benefits of a lattice approach to career pathways (highlighting lateral and diagonal career movement which provide more varied options for growth and development) and career diagnostic tools to uncover preferences such as work pace, desire for reduced or flexible hours and current bandwidth for extra work. All of which provide leaders with the confidence and support to discuss and put in place flexible arrangements successfully.

Peer Support

Sometimes success can come from the support of a peer network of people in a similar position to you.  Global organisations such as J.P Morgan are supporting workers getting back up to speed after maternity leave by offering peer support in the way of organised return-to-work programs. The group provides support where vulnerability can be discussed openly in a forum for exchanging advice on personal and professional challenges. Initiatives like these are critical in order to ensure that key talents are not wasted because women and men can’t find a way to use their skills in a way that won’t compromise their desire to play a larger care giving role at home. Perhaps the word part-time needs a makeover to something that fully represents the value and commitment this growing group of professional women and men bring to the world of work.

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