Six years ago, when Erin Hrobak was on maternity leave with her first son, Dominic, she considered leaving her job to become a stay-at-home mom. Like many new moms who love their careers but hate spending time away from their babies, Erin initially viewed work and family as an either/or proposition: “I thought, Will I do the career thing or the mom thing?” she recalls. But thanks to her employer, Erin soon discovered she had another option to consider: part-time work. Erin, a customer accounts manager at AstraZeneca, worked out a three-days-in-the-office schedule (she’s since gone up to four days), joining the ranks of 13 percent of the pharmaceutical company’s full-time workforce that made the same leap in 2011.
“My Fridays have been so valuable for helping the kids through transitional stages like potty training, big-boy beds, bike riding, shoe tying, you name it,” says Erin now. “Sometimes, having three consecutive days of working at something pays big dividends in the end.”
To many working moms, meaningful part-time work is the Holy Grail, offering extra time for hosting playdates while remaining enmeshed in their careers. A 2007 Pew Research Center study found that 60 percent of working mothers think part-time work is the ideal situation, while the Working Mother Research Institute’s 2011 report What Moms Choose found that almost half the career-oriented moms surveyed nationwide see part-time work as desirable, especially during the preschool years.
Progressive companies are aware of the demand: Virtually every employer on the 2012 Working Mother 100 Best Companies list, including AstraZeneca, offers full-time employees the option of switching to a part-time schedule. And the change can be either temporary, as in cases where a new mom is phasing back from maternity leave, or permanent.
But is part-time work the right choice for you? Although it seems like life would be much easier if you could fit in a yoga class and some laundry during the week, part-time workers do face some important trade-offs, say experts. “Unfortunately, part-timers in our culture traditionally have not been viewed so positively,” says Kathie Lingle, executive director of WorldatWork’s Alliance for Work-Life Progress, which studies the availability of part-time and flexible work. Today, she says, too many employers still mistake a lighter load for a lack of commitment and bypass part-timers when big assignments are handed out—and also think of part-timers first when layoffs loom. Working Mother readers also report that some supervisors will happily agree to reduce a worker’s hours (and pay) but forget to cut her workload to the same degree.
Reduced Hours on the Rise
Despite such risks, the ranks of working women with part-time schedules rose two percentage points between the 2008 start of the recession and 2010, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics figures. Roughly a quarter of all working American women are part-timers. “There’s no question more women are working part-time,” but not necessarily by choice, says Lingle, who notes that many are employed in retail or service industries, where hourly schedules are the norm and benefits are often not part of the picture. To that end, says Lingle, “We’d like to see more ‘permanent professional part-time’ positions.”
So would many working moms (and dads)—but they still face reluctance from managers who fear the added complexity of managing a lot of different schedules, prorated pay and benefits, and other housekeeping issues, says Jeff Hill, PhD, a professor in the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences at Brigham Young University and a former human resources manager at IBM, where he helped champion greater acceptance of part-time and other creative arrangements.
Companies that don’t value part-timers are missing out, argues victor Buzachero, corporate senior vice president at Scripps Health, a Working Mother Best Company based in San Diego. “Even with a lot of people looking for work in the United States, we still have pockets of shortages.” Flexible schedules “allow us to hold on to our most valuable people.” He notes that of the health giant’s workforce of more than 13,000 employees, almost 20 percent work part-time.
Christine Reilich Mackay is one of them. “I was just going to resign,” says the Scripps human resources manager, who took a year off after having twins Ian and Dylan ten years ago (she already had 2-year-old Colin at home). After all those sleepless nights and diaper changes, though, she was excited to come back to her job at a 20-hours-per-week schedule, which she’s maintained ever since.
Hours Down, Productivity Up
Moms like Christine, who want to stick with careers they love even if they can’t devote 40 hours each week, make highly motivated workers.
“We’ve seen that employees’ productivity goes way up” after switching to part-time, says Dr. Hill. “They’re more results-oriented.” The Best Companies support that part-time view—for instance, IBM, which has been on the 100 Best list every year since its founding in 1986, allows part-timers to forgo “low value” activities like long (and, face it, often tedious) meetings and conference calls, says Dr. Hill. That way, “they figure out how to get the job done” in less time.
For Erin Hrobak (whose second son, Jackson, arrived three years ago), the decision to go part-time has reaped benefits—and two promotions. Erin drives her kids—both enrolled at AstraZeneca’s on-site day care center—50 miles to the Wilmington, DE, office Monday through Thursday. Her Fridays are busy, too, but with errands and grocery shopping, visits to the library or pool and building tents out of bedsheets. “And best of all,” Erin says, “I get to make a homemade dinner—complete with protein, vegetable and starch—just in time for hubby to get home for a weekend-kickoff cocktail.”
HOW TO GO PART-TIME
Ready to make the switch? Be sure you’ve got your ducks in a row before you make your case to the decision-makers.
Come prepared. Don’t ask for a part-time gig without knowing exactly what you want. If possible, connect with someone from your company who already works part-time and ask if the arrangement has affected her career trajectory. Find out whether your company keeps part-timers on the list of high-value workers who deserve big assignments and promotions. Remember, too, that part-time can mean anything from 20 to 30 hours a week. The devil’s in the details: How many days each week do you want to be in the office? Will your days be flexible? Will you come into the office during high-stress projects? A grueling commute might argue in favor of fewer but longer workdays, but if your department head wants regular face time, she may prefer to have you in daily, for shorter periods.
Be focused and flexible. Emphasize that you’ll go the extra mile when need be. “When my kids are in bed, I’m on the computer,” says Ginger Madden, a human resources director for Cincinnati-based health system TriHealth, who switched to a three-day-a-week schedule when her son was born 12 years ago and only recently went back to a full-time schedule.
Protect your work relationships. “I made sure my clients didn’t think they were getting any less from me because of my part-time status,” says Ginger. Part-timers need to “be prepared to work really hard to keep all those balls in the air.”
Stay plugged in. Let colleagues know when and how to reach you. Make sure your team realizes that you’re getting work done despite your reduced hours. Resentment from coworkers who think you’re not totally devoted to the job is one of the most disheartening downsides to part-time work, say women who have experienced it, so be sure everybody knows how engaged you really are.
Suggest a trial. If you sense your boss isn’t totally on board, make a pledge to revisit the arrangement within a defined period of 30 days to three months. That should give you enough time to demonstrate your parttime plan’s feasibility.
Don’t threaten to quit. Well, not unless you’re fully prepared to do so. Keep in mind that it’s harder to seek a new part-time situation than to transition from full-time to a reduced schedule at the same employer.