Business

Part-time power: Can you be part-time at the top?

  • 18 February 2015
  • From the section Business
Group of executives
Image caption Do you have to put on the executive suit five days a week?

It's a familiar stereotype. The part-time worker (usually a woman) who has compromised on career and salary to bring up children.

Not for her the world of her full-time counterpart (usually a man) in a high-powered job, with not enough hours in the day, let alone days in the week, to respond to the e-mails, phone calls and meeting requests coming at him from all corners of the globe.

But a decade and a half into the 21st Century there are signs of a work pattern emerging that fits neither stereotype. And it isn't only for the benefit of frustrated working mothers.

It's being forged by men and women who, for whatever reason - whether it's children, elderly parents, or the pursuit of that elusive thing called work-life balance, don't want to work full-time, but are determined to do more than just "keep their hand in".

"I still feel ambitious. I want to have influence. There's an assumption that when you ask for part-time work, all those other things that made you professionally have gone out of the window, and that's just not true," says Karen Mattison, the co-founder of Timewise, which promotes flexible working.

"You're the same person inside, that's why the stigma around part-time work matters, it's the lens you might be looked at through."

Image caption Karen Mattison co-founded Timewise after failing to find interesting part-time work herself

Power list

Ms Mattison got tired of being told by businesses that part-time working was only possible in more junior roles but not in any more senior role that involved managing a team or dealing with clients.

She looked at government figures for 2012 and found there were 650,000 people in the higher tax bracket working part-time. She sought out and interviewed 300 of them

Typically they told her that while they were indeed working part-time they weren't shouting about it for fear of being perceived as unambitious.

Or, Ms Mattison reports, a manager might have said to them: "Look you know what, you're really good, I'll do it for you, but I don't want the floodgates opening, I don't want everyone asking me for it."

In November 2012 Ms Mattison launched the first part-time power list in order to address this lack of fanfare around senior part-time roles and to encourage employers to be more open about the opportunities for it.

The 2014 list includes a top civil servant, the chief engineer of an oil and gas business and the head of HR at Camelot, the lottery operator.

But working at this level is not part-time work with predictable hours and days.

Image caption Kate Cheetham and Andrew Whittaker are pioneering a full-time/part-time model at Lloyds Banking Group

Workload management

Andrew Whittaker, the group general counsel (chief lawyer) for Lloyds Banking Group prefers to call it flexible working. He is formally employed for three days a week, while his deputy, Kate Cheetham, is full-time.

He is clear about the quid pro quo that goes with reduced hours.

"In practice it's very flexible both as to what the days are and working on non-working days," he says.

"Because I think it's very much the case that in a senior role you're expected to make yourself available when the need arises."

Mr Whittaker is the first to acknowledge that his arrangement works because it is supported by Ms Cheetham and between them they manage the workload and adapt as the situation requires.

Nevertheless, you might think a fast-paced, pressurised environment would be the enemy of part-time work.

Image caption In a 24/7 world one person cannot do everything, it's about teamwork, argues Kate Cheetham

"I think it's quite the reverse," says Ms Cheetham. "Because if you look at how you really service the 24/7 culture and customer base, you can't possibly do that through one person so you've got to start thinking about flexibility."

'Rethink' working hours

Lloyds Banking Group, which has also had a part-time chief economist, is the founder of the Agile Future Forum, which brings together top businesses to consider more flexible models of working. It argues that agility - the new buzzword for flexibility - is the key to economic growth for the UK.

It's that argument which could work in favour of the part-time high-flier. And it is gaining weight on both sides of the Atlantic.

"The traditional model was work full-time, stay forever, add skills and get promoted," says Mara Swan, executive vice-president for global strategy and talent at ManpowerGroup, the employment experts.

She believes that this model is under threat from several fronts: the arrival of young people into the workforce with different expectations of their career; the rise in dual careers; and a global lack of skills.

In this climate, Ms Swan says, "We have to rethink part-time."

Image caption If employers want to be attractive, says Mara Swan, they must be flexible

She points to ManpowerGroup's Talent Shortage Survey for 2013, which reported that 35% of employers on average were having difficulty filling jobs. It too made much of the "A" word, stressing the need for employer agility in uncertain economic times. At number four in its "Ten Quick Ways to boost Agility", it advised companies: "Be Flexible: Contract, interns, part-timers, virtual workers are increasingly the norm."

Ms Swan, who has recently promoted a woman who had been working part-time to the full-time post of director of global strategic communications, believes it is a worker's skill-set that trumps the hours in the job description.

"If you have skills that differentiate you, you can ask for part-time."

"It's all about measuring output rather than input," agrees Avril Martindale, a partner at the law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in London, who works on a 60% basis.

"You have to be confident in yourself and you have to know where you're adding value."

Image caption It's not necessarily the hours in the office that count

Gradual change

That confidence is important, because while the economic tide may be turning in favour of the part-timer, what about the real world where workplace culture might not have caught up and part-time bosses are subject to the scrutiny of their full-time peers and juniors?

Ms Martindale's advice is not to feel self-conscious because, like Mara Swan, she thinks that attitudes to work are changing as Generation Y, those born in and after the mid-1980s, comes through.

"The whole sense of what people expect out of their lives has changed... that's not to diminish how hard people work, but there's more focus on work-life balance and mental health," she says.

This change of focus is good news for the aspiring part-time boss, but Andrew Whittaker, whose arrangement with Kate Cheetham sets a precedent at Lloyds, is cautious about heralding a revolution.

"There will still be I think for many years a lot of people for whom it is right to carry on working pretty much on a traditional five-day week or six-day week basis, or indeed on an every-hour-God-sends basis".

Mr Whittaker believes that's not only a lifestyle choice, but also that many organisations still like to think their staff are constantly available, irrespective of the actual demand.

"So I think it's difficult to say it's the beginning of a new tomorrow, but I think it probably is different from how it would have been a number of years ago."

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