Repost: Thinking of going part-time?

Laura’s note: A few people sent me Olga Khazan’s recent article in the Atlantic called “Why don’t more American moms work part-time?” Part-time work is often perceived as the best of both worlds — you work part of the time, and spend part of your time on other things. But it’s often not that simple.

I know in this pandemic era, as people try to figure out what is possible with disrupted school and childcare schedules, many mothers and others are again weighing the idea of reduced schedules. Below is a blog post from 2017 with some thoughts for people debating going part-time. It’s funny to see Sarah referred to as “one of my favorite bloggers” — shortly after this appeared we went into the podcasting business together! Her part-time arrangement made that possible at the beginning, though she’s now back up to full-time and we’ve figured out how to make it work. 

Thinking of going part-time? Some questions to ask (and boundaries to draw)

January 17, 2017 — If you’ve got young kids, making the pieces of work and life fit together can be challenging. That’s why part-time work remains a popular option. Various Pew Research Center studies have found close to half of mothers would prefer to work part-time (note: that’s not just moms working full time hours who want to scale down — about four in ten stay-at-home moms would prefer to be working part-time too!)

So is going part-time the key to achieving work/life bliss? Well, maybe. From studying time logs (particularly in I Know How She Does It), I think this depends a lot on the nature of your work, how clear the demarcation is between “at work” and “not at work” and the choices you then make with the time you’re not on the clock.

One of my favorite bloggers, Sarah (of The SHU Box), recently asked for — and got — an 80% schedule. She’s a pediatric specialist whose job currently involves seeing patients at the office M-F during the hours the office is open, and then being on-call 20% of the time. In the comments on her post announcing this move, a few people brought up my writing on this topic, so I thought I’d take the chance to write about the part-time question, and what can go right and wrong.

First, going part-time almost always involves a pay cut. So the key questions are whether you will actually get enough time back to justify the cost, and whether you will be able to use that time to do things you believe get short shrift in your current schedule.

In Sarah’s case, the line between work and not-work is pretty clear. Going to an 80% schedule means she will not be in the office one day a week. Her job involves seeing patients, and she will not see patients that day. So, in fact, she will most likely work fewer hours.

Other jobs, however, don’t have such clear boundaries or clear hours. Maybe some days people schedule conference calls at 5:00 p.m., and some days they don’t. Some days involve visiting a client, and taking off for the airport at 9 a.m. and other days involve needing to be somewhere at 8 a.m. and leaving at 7. Sometimes a big Monday morning presentation requires a lot of prep on Sunday evening, but people leave at varying times on Friday. Or a lot of people work from home one day a week.

In cases where there’s no clear number of hours people work, the actual numbers can be all over the map. For IKHSDI, I collected some logs from colleagues, and in every single case where I had more than one log from the same organization, I found a 10-hour gap in work hours within the same company. In one case I found a 20-hour gap. In another case, I found one woman working a PT schedule who logged more hours than a colleague working a FT schedule. It’s hard to know what’s going on in any individual circumstance (someone could just have had a bad week, and no doubt 10-20 hour gaps correspond with different career trajectories) but I do think that full time work encompasses a host of lifestyle options. Another issue: as hours go up, people have a tendency to overestimate hours. So if people talk about their “70 hour workweeks,” it is quite possible they are averaging closer to 50. Which means that taking a 50% pay-cut to work 40 hours a week is assigning a pretty high price to those hours on the margin.

So before taking a pay-cut to go part time, a good question to ask is whether you could get the same outcome by working a bit more flexibly. Instead of staying at the office until 7, could you leave at 5 and work after the kids go to bed? Would anyone notice if you came in half an hour later than usual once or twice a week (so you could drive the kids to school?) Could you work from home on occasion and use some of that time to do things like work out during your breaks? Could you just…slack? Not everyone who’s in the office is 100% on all the time, as anyone who’s worked in an office can attest. Even if you’re generally an A+ kind of person, some days it’s OK to do A- work. More broadly, sometimes it can be better to ask for forgiveness than permission. Work how you want to work and see what happens. There’s some evidence that men do this, rather than negotiating official part-time schedules.

If you decide to go part-time, make sure to log your hours before taking the cut, and then log them after. If there is not an appreciable decline, something is not working right and you’ll need to step in to solve the problem. In a world where a lot of work is done by phone and email, people are not going to respect your boundaries unless you force them to. Sometimes people want to make their part-time decision easier on other people, so they say things like “you can always reach me by phone” or “I’ll be checking my email” and next thing you know you’re on a conference call the entire time you’re at the playground on your day “off.” If you’re working full-time hours, you should get paid for full-time work. The fact that you’re working them flexibly is not as big a deal as one might think, as long as the work is getting done.

Finally, be mindful of how you plan to spend the hours you’ve bought back. If you want more time with your kids, be sure to spend the time with your kids. If you want more time for exercise and personal projects, do that. It can be very easy to do such things as errands and housework during that time, but then you’ve just substituted unpaid labor for higher-paid labor. If you love grocery shopping and cooking, that’s one thing. But using your day off to do chores and errands you don’t love, rather than the work you get paid a professional wage for, is not a great economic decision. Sarah is very smart here, and has written that she does not plan to take over more household chores as a result of her schedule change.

If anyone reading this has gone to a part-time schedule, I’d love your tips for making sure that it feels fair for all involved.

Laura’s note: I’ll ask the same question in 2021! If you’ve gone to a reduced schedule during the pandemic, or plan to in the near future, how do you plan to make sure it works?

14 thoughts on “Repost: Thinking of going part-time?

  1. Wow–Thanks for posting that NYT article!!!

    “What is fascinating about the firm Ms. Reid studied is that these people, who in her terminology were “passing” as workaholics, received performance reviews that were as strong as their hyper-ambitious colleagues. For people who were good at faking it, there was no real damage done by their lighter workloads.

    The result of this is easy to see: Those specifically requesting a lighter workload, who were disproportionately women, suffered in their performance reviews; those who took a lighter workload more discreetly didn’t suffer. The maxim of “ask forgiveness, not permission” seemed to apply.”

    The fact that most who ask for reduced workloads are women, reflects on the fact that we tend to raise women to be “good girls” and rule followers. Whereas, for boys, well…”boys will be boys,” and we let things slide. We should start raising our little girls to be more rebelious–and take on a “kids will be kids” attitude (i.e. applicable to ALL kids, not just the boys).

    1. I think there is truth to this . . .hence why I am now in more of a leadership role and back to full time! 🙂 🙂

    2. @Kenia – you hit the nail on the head here. The good girl phenomenon is alive and well. A lot of women want it to be “official” – that they have official permission to work differently, and they will pay the price to do so. In some cases, there is also a positive social aspect to being officially part-time — it’s like, look, work gets only “part” of me. But full time work need not encompass the full amount of one’s time (there are 168 hours in a week!) Reid’s study hit on a very important truth about how men tend to approach a situation like this. There are all kinds of guys spending the evening with their families, taking a call at 8 p.m. and then acting like they were at work the whole time…

  2. I actually wrote to you both about going part time a few years ago. I work 9 to 2 daily and it’s been beyond good for our family. I’m lucky that my firm really respects these boundaries and more importantly, I don’t have the responsibilities and stressors of a full time role (travel, late dinners, expectation of availability etc.) having a 4 and 2 year old has been stressful enough that not having the work stress follow me home has allowed me to be more patient and present with the children. Additionally, having a lot quantity of time with them had led naturally to quality rather than trying to force quality time in along with all life errands and time for myself and spouse in the 2 hours per weekday and weekends. At the same time, having the intellectual satisfaction of working on interesting projects has been so good for my sanity too. I truly believe it’s the best of both worlds in my particular situation

    1. @Rachel – excellent! The key is that the boundaries are respected and that the extra time isn’t used for low value tasks. I’m glad it’s working well for your family.

  3. My job involves pretty extensive travel during the Fall Semester, and bit less in the spring and pretty easing going summers. I have been around long enough to accrue significant vacation time, so what works best for me is to take two full weeks off in the summer, and then use the rest of my paid leave to work 4 hour days. I am around enough so no one feels the need to call me when not in the office or “on the clock” if working from home, and by the end of the summer, I feel rested, having time to do what I want most of the summer. I know that isn’t possible for everyone, but being creative with paid leave is an option for many.

    1. @Susan – that sounds like a great and creative solution! I’m sure some places have restrictions on how paid leave can be taken, but probably other places have fewer and this might be worth checking out. Summer is likely better than winter for working part time!

    2. @Susan – that sounds like a great and creative solution! I’m sure some places have restrictions on how paid leave can be taken, but probably other places have fewer and this might be worth checking out. Summer is likely better than winter for working part time!

  4. I work in consulting so I have to bill every hour I work which is great for time accountability and also forces me to see how many hours I actually work (because I can’t just make up the hours…they all go to the clients in their monthly invoices). I work 32 hours/week but actually will get paid by the hour if I work between 32.1 and 40 hours/week which is kind of ideal. I really like the flexibility to not work a full day here and there for my own self care and running our household that includes a d 3 and 6 yo. I’m very jealous of friends who do not have to bill their time…in this scenario I think it’s much easier to “fudge” your hours and call your work FT when it’s really not. So I appreciate your comment that it really depends on your industry. Do I think I’m doing the work of a fulltime employee and should be paid for it? Yup.

  5. For the first time in my career of over 20 years, I am planning a significantly reduced workload. I have negotiated a 50% load for 4 months and then going up to 75/80% for some period of time. The goal is to eventually move my way back up to 100% but maybe not. The reasons for my making this move are not ones I will get into over the internet in any level of detail. Suffice it to say that sometimes older children actually need their mothers/parents much more than babies/toddlers, even though much of the focus on giving working mothers flexibility is focused on the younger cohort. (Also, COVID sucks, and we are not pandemic thrivers). Because I have to track my time, I think I will be able to get a pretty good sense soon as to whether my compensation is being driven down much more than my workload. I do think there’s a bit of a “good girl” element to this, but my profession is driven by chargeable hours/metrics, so I feel like I really do need to negotiate a lower target so that I don’t get called out, and I think it’s unethical (and illegal) to charge clients for time that you haven’t actually spent. The good news is that, because I have so much experience under my belt, I have made enough money (lucky, I know!) and banked enough goodwill with my partners that they are willing to accommodate with much/any pushback. I’m sure some of them think this proves that women can’t hack it at leadership levels, but honestly, I don’t give sh!t anymore (another benefit of being older). I think if I had tried to do this when I was 28 and had my oldest child, the impact on my career trajectory would have been very different. So while I think most of the considerations you’ve noted are really good ones, I also think sometimes we just have to listen to what we need in our lives and figure out the rest. On a related note, I personally would love a follow-up post on how you apply these principles to your own part-time work arrangement. If I recall correctly, you mentioned that you’ve recently been logging about 30 hrs/week of work, which definitely falls into the part-time bucket in most cases. You seem to be thriving with this arrangement, which is great, so would be interesting to hear more.

    1. @Rinna- as you point out, having seniority definitely helps with these sorts of situations. Your partners know you will get a lot done in any amount of time you are working! And agreed, it might have been a lot harder to make partner working part-time earlier in your career. Some firms have this as an option, but it’s probably not an easy road. My hours are all over the map right now. What’s interesting to me at this stage of self-employment is how unclear the correlation is between hours worked and income. I’m sure it’s there somewhere — if I worked zero, some things would keep going but others would nosedive fast — but it’s a mixed bag for sure.

  6. I tried going down to 80% a few years ago and it totally didn’t work. The nature of the work was project-based with fixed deadlines, so while I gained some flexibility about where I was for an afternoon a week, I was mostly just doing more work from home in the evenings and on the week-end while taking a pay cut. I would have been better served by having a conversation about a flexible work arrangement where I didn’t have to be in the office 100% each and every day.

    The boundary piece here is really important – can’t stress it enough!!

  7. I reduced my hours to 80% when my kids were just starting school (elementary school is much harder for working moms than the daycare/nanny phase IMO). I worked a demanding role in finance at the time and was nearing 40, so had visibility and significant responsibility by that point. My boss at the time, a female, approved it but asked me not to tell anyone (esp her male boss). I was always checking email when I wasn’t working, regardless of my hours and learned to be incredibly efficient with my time. So did I really agree to a pay cut for the same amount of work? Pretty much. Did it give me the flexibility I needed at that time to figure out how to be the mother I wanted to be without losing my mind? 100%! There isn’t a lot of part time professional work out there. I wanted flexibility, not a career change and the part time/pay cut gave me the leverage to walk out at 3:00p every day for 5 years. When my kids entered middle school, I informed them I was coming back full time and enjoyed the 20% “raise”. There were people who didn’t understand my choice. There were other managers mad at my boss, because of course people figured it out. But I always saw it as a choice that supported my values and would have left the org if they didn’t approve my request. I consider myself very lucky to have had the opportunity and financial flexibility to make that choice. It’s unfortunate that more organizations don’t realize the talent they lose (or worse, the talent that stays but just disengages) when they refuse to recognize that hiring an employee means hiring the whole person.

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