When bosses go part-time

Written by: Emma De Vita Posted: 09/04/2018

part-time bosses illoFlexible working is one thing, but is it possible for senior management to carry out their jobs on a part-time basis? Apparently it is

Flexible working has become a workplace essential – and if you want to attract and retain the best and brightest, it’s a must-have. But what about those people who don’t want the slog of full-time hours? What about those who want to reduce their hours, preferring to work part-time or in a job-share? And how feasible is this when it comes to working at a senior level in business? 

In 2017, more than two out of five hirers in the UK would consider recruiting for senior roles on a job-share basis, according to research from flexible employment specialist Timewise. 

There are now an estimated 773,000 people formally working part-time in higher income brackets, an increase of 5.7 per cent on the previous year. Trailblazing part-time senior executives include Katie Bickerstaffe, UK and Ireland Chief Executive at Dixons Carphone, and Anita Waters, Group Legal Director at Virgin Management (see box), both of whom work four days a week.

While both women choose to work part-time because they want to spend more of the week with their young families, there are many other reasons why people don’t want to work a 35-hour week. 

“Generation Y is leading the charge on this. Obviously there are people with caring responsibilities, but people mainly just want a better work/life balance,” says Karen Mattison, co-CEO of Timewise. 

This could be wanting to set up their own business or volunteering for a charity or for sports training, for example. “It’s so much more than the idea of a concession for parents at a very specific point in their lives,” she says. 

The revolution in working hours isn’t only a generational demand by younger workers, but a reflection on how society has fundamentally changed since the days of the traditional male breadwinner working nine-to-five, five days a week. 

“A firm ignores part-time at its peril, because in the end what we’re seeing is a growing number of people at all levels, including the higher tax bracket, choosing to work part-time,” warns Mattison. “If you ignore it, you won’t be an employer of choice and people will vote with their feet.” 

Proof of the pudding

Rebecca Stannard is exactly that kind of person. As Head of Marketing and Business Development at Bedell Cristin, she was headhunted to join the law firm and initially worked part-time so that she could spend the afternoons with her young children.

She recently upped her hours to full-time – but flexibly – when her youngest started school. She now works 7.30am to 2.15pm in the office Monday to Thursday, and 9am to 2pm on Friday. She makes up her hours in the evenings and at weekends.

It’s a win-win arrangement for Stannard and her firm. While she gets to spend more time with her children, she says the business gets a lot more out of her because she probably overcompensates for the support they give her. 

“I work really hard the hours I’m in the office, but I also put in a lot of time at home,” says Stannard. “I feel really conscious that they’ve been so good to me.” 

She says she is happy to cram in extra hours because she wants to see her children. “To me it’s a choice. If you want to operate at a fairly senior level, you do need to put in the extra effort. Do you want to be in the office normal hours and potentially not have to do so much in the evenings, or cram in extra outside your working hours?” 

Stannard says that her firm has people working in a range of patterns, from flexible to part-time, including client-facing staff. “If people are seen to be important to the business, we would want to keep them, so try to work as flexibly as we can.” 

Across the island, however, she says the finance industry needs to break down the assumption that people working part-time are less career-focused and ambitious. “It’s about having more people at senior levels working flexibly – there aren’t that many at a senior level working part-time. The more people that we have as a partner or a director that way, the easier it will be to break down that stigma.”

Shelley Kendrick, Founder of Jersey-based recruitment agency Kendrick Rose, says that while some flexibility around full-time hours is available for those at C-suite level, part-time hours are something of a no-no because the expectation is that you’d be needed in the office to resolve issues as they arose. 

It might be acceptable to leave work early to watch your child perform in a concert, but the assumption is that you’ll be responsive 24/7 anyway.

From the top

Further down an organisation, part-time hours are possible at middle management level if you’ve proven yourself. “There needs to be mutual respect and trust – that’s when it works,” Kendrick says. 

Equally, working compressed hours is more common, particularly in a firm with global clients, where arriving at the office early means you can get in touch with people in different countries.

Kendrick says the Channel Islands lag behind London and the UK mainland when it comes to flexible working, not least because of the pool of talent and other restrictions. But change must come, she says, especially because millennials expect work to fit around their lifestyle and are quick to part with a job that doesn’t give them the flexibility they want. “They won’t put up with it,” says Kendrick. 

The best way for a business to manage part-time working is by discussing the job spec with the individual, their manager and their team. Attention should be paid to how the role is adjusted to accommodate fewer hours. Otherwise ‘mission creep’ can kick in – where employees go down to four or three days a week but still find themselves shouldering their full-time job responsibilities. 

This can be hardest for middle managers, who perhaps have least control over their workload as they have to manage upwards as well as downwards. Ironically, it can be at the very top of business where part-time working or job-sharing works most easily. Timewise produces an annual Power Part Time List, and has 350 examples of very senior roles being delivered in less than full-time hours. 

When Mattison launched the list seven years ago, she was told there was a ceiling above which part-time employment wouldn’t work. But she’s found that if you’re the leader of a business, the work can be delegated downwards. “You have more control over your time,” she says.

“The challenge is the squeezed middle manager because they’re less in control of designing their role. The more senior, the more control you have.”

Ultimately, part-time working for senior managers is another recruitment option that firms shouldn’t overlook. “It’s a fantastic tool for attracting and retaining the kind of people you want to work in your business,” says Mattison. “Instead of seeing it as a problem, see it as an opportunity.”

Case study: Anita Waters, Virgin Management

Anita WatersAs Group Legal Director at Virgin Management, Anita Waters has worked four days a week for the past seven years, having originally joined the company full-time. 
   She reduced her hours after returning from her first maternity leave, so that she could spend more time with her children. 
   The first to work part-time at her level of seniority, Waters was keen to keep the arrangement constantly open for review with her manager and her team. “Having really good technology allows you to be available when you need to be, and having a top-notch Executive Assistant who’s a whizz with diary management has helped make the arrangement work.” 
   Not only does Waters get to spend Mondays with her family, but she’s also been promoted twice during this time – testament to the fact that, when properly set up, reduced working hours can be a catalyst for career success.


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