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Part-time as the norm rather than the exception

Julia Beart, chief executive at Primary Care International, writes about being a part time leader and managing a part-time team.

A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page

When I was asked to write this blog about being a ‘part-time’ leader, I initially felt pretty confident. I’ve been working part-time ever since I had my first child in 2011. And yet, before I share how and why I have been determined to make it work for myself and my team, we must acknowledge some home truths.

1. Even if you work part-time, it doesn’t mean you have special insight into the motivation of any other person to work part-time. What works for me may not work for you. I might not mind being pinged outside of work hours if it resolves an urgent challenge and enables us to move on. Others might find this stressful and intrusive, and they should feel perfectly within their rights to protect their non-working time.

2. The part-time worker in the social impact sector is unlikely to be a clock-watcher. They are likely to put more hours in than they are paid for. There is a constant risk that their boss takes them for granted, resulting in burnout and disillusionment. This past year, more than ever, I may not have always got it right, and I fear each of my teammates has had moments when they have been tempted to walk away.

3. Despite working part-time myself, it’s really hard to get workload across a part-time team right. We often get it wrong, we usually expect too much, and there is rarely time for reflection. And of course, no, I’m not writing this during my own part-time work hours, I’m writing between dropping off and picking up my daughter from Brownies!

So despite the challenges, what opportunities are there for employers willing to take the plunge and invest in part-time working patterns?

There is a huge pool of exceptionally talented people out there for whom 35-40 hours a week is not an option. Embracing the part-time worker not only means tapping into all of that talent, but it also means that you can attract a wider and more diverse pool of expertise – let’s say across a team of seven part-time workers like my own team – than if just two-three full-time workers were tasked with that same work.

To make this work in my organisation, it has been hugely helpful that we are all part-time. It is the norm rather than the exception. No one is ever made to feel guilty about leaving early on a particular day, dipping out of a working session to attend to a pressing matter in their personal lives. We always take our annual leave at times that suit our individual circumstances – in our case, this usually means limited ‘office’ cover during school holidays. Still, we make it work with careful planning. This flexible, human approach goes both ways. My organisation offers a lot of flex, and in return, my team offers flex too. We help each other out when someone’s workload has become unmanageable, and we do a few extra days when we need to (always compensated with time off in lieu later). By actively leaning into this part-time model, we make it the default position rather than the minority position.

In a part-time team, it’s especially important, however, to learn about one another and respect people’s boundaries. I picked up a great tool during an Action Learning Set a couple of years ago which I’ve used with my team really effectively called One Page Profiles. An exceptionally simple concept, it invites the team to reflect on one another’s strengths and then to share their thoughts on what is important to them and how best to support them.

It so happens that my part-time team is also a 100% virtual team. Pre-pandemic, people were attracted to PCI partly because they could work flexibly from home (rather than being forced to work from home) with monthly co-working days when we would come together as a team. In many ways, this meant we were well prepared for lockdown. There were a few quirks to our virtual part-time working, which were already well-established. One of these was recognising the value of asynchronous exchange of ideas. Personally, I love to communicate verbally, and I like bouncing ideas around and thinking on my feet. Others much prefer to reflect and react after giving more careful thought to a subject. Incidentally, the balance this brings to my team is invaluable – if we all suffered from my affliction to think and act fast, we would have made more missteps than I care to admit. The point is that although virtual part-time working can slow us down, it also helps us make better decisions. In turn, it even gives us insight into how our users (healthcare workers) might feel interacting with our learning and development programmes asynchronously in the virtual world.

You might think we use every tool under the sun to facilitate this way of working. Whilst we have dabbled with Trello, Slack and many other tools over the years, we find that sticking to one or two (definitely no more than three) communication tools works best. Otherwise you add stress by creating accounts to be monitored across numerous platforms – equally as painfully as an overloaded Outlook inbox!

On a more practical note, my whole team knows that I manage my time ruthlessly by plotting every last task into my Outlook calendar. Knowing I only have an hour to review and edit a document before I need to move on focuses my mind, and mapping everything out visually helps me to be realistic about how much actual work I can squeeze in around my meeting schedule. Again, others might find the constant ping of reminders stressful but personally it helps me to progress pieces of work as well as to intentionally to de-prioritise other pieces when something more urgent crops up. I routinely move least 30% of my intended to do list for the week into the following week when it becomes obvious that I need to, but in doing so I am giving myself permission and this itself helps to manage workload related stress.

In this challenging and unequal world of ours, I do believe that the opportunity to balance doing work we believe in deeply with time during our week for the other things that are important in our lives, is a privilege. I don’t think any of us really have all the answers when it comes to mental health and well-being in the workplace, but actively offering flexible part-time hours as a core part of your strategy for effective organisational performance has got to be a good first step.

Narrated by a member of the ACEVO staff

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