Part-time working in Academia

A colleague of mine has recently reduced her working week from 5 to 3 days, and has been struggling to contain her work within the new 3 day week.  Given that I have been wrestling with the same issue over the last 7 years, we met for lunch last week to swap tips on how to manage reduced hours working in the open-ended and pretty unstructured environment of a UK university.  Here are some thoughts for those of you who may be in similar situation or considering a switch to reduced hours working.

1. Reduced hours working needs to be a carefully negotiated process between employer and employee.  Simply reducing working hours without any commensurate reduction in workload is recipe for unhappiness, stress and ill feeling.  My colleague spent many months negotiating her reduced hours working and whilst this may seem an extreme example, it enabled her to lay the foundation for a reasonably successful transition to a three day week. The reality however is that 3 days is seldom just 3 days!

2. Reduced hours does not imply reduced responsibility or reduced commitment to the job.    During my working days I am available to colleagues, collaborators and students and my commitment to delivering excellent teaching and regular research outputs is unchanged – all be it finding time to produce them is more of a challenge.  In fact I pride myself on responding to 95% of phone messages and emails within 48 hours.  And many of my students do not even realise that I am on a reduced hours contract – even though I make explicit that I am only in Manchester on certain days of the week.  Whilst this “availability” does require a bit of flexibility in terms of checking emails on non working days – this is a small price to pay for the much improved work-life balance of reduced hours working, whilst still demonstrating commitment to my role as a Lecturer

3. Reduced hours working means learning to say no.  This is a hard skill to learn.  My colleague and I both agreed that learning to say no was essential to making reduced hours working feasible – otherwise you end up trying to cram 5 days worth of work into 3 days.  A delicate balancing act is required at all times; on the one hand showing commitment, enthusiasm and maintaining visibility, and at the same time gently reminding academic colleagues and even Heads of School that we are only here 3 days a week.   My rule of thumb is to attend about one meeting in every three, saying no to all the rest.  This saves a huge amount of time and is a strategy I would recommend to full-time and part time employees alike!

4. Reduced hours working means letting go of some of the social aspects of work   Lunch-times, corridor chats and extra-curricular activities are a victim of reduced hours working.  I do try to be visible when I am in the office, and hope that I am never overtly rude to colleagues, but quite frankly I don’t have time to spare for long discussions on the latest gossip or departmental machinations.  A proper lunch break is an infrequent treat too – but I know that this is the case for full-time employees and not the exclusive preserve of us part-timers!

5. Reduced hours working means working smarter: All aids to efficiency whether technological or cognitive need to be deployed to manage a professional role in reduced hours.  To-do lists, relentless focus on a small number of key priorities and judicious use of a smart phone for email and diary management are essential weapons in the battle against lack of time.  Yes, the use of technology can blur the boundaries between home and the workplace, but with discipline (for example, I turn my email off on a Thursday evening and don’t turn it on until Sunday evening at the earliest) work does not become too intrusive.

6. Sadly and for the foreseeable future reduced hours working means relinquishing the prospect of promotions: This is a tricky one.  I am sure that senior managers would deny that this is the case, but the reality is that as a part-time employee it is not possible to match the output of a full time equivalent.  Time will tell whether promotion committees will be able make allowances for part-time employees when judging promotion cases.  The presence of role models working reduced-hours in senior positions would help, together with senior management behaviours that model sensible and family friendly working hours, and more flexible criteria for promotion.  We wait in anticipation of this……..

Over to you

  1. Have you considered reducing your working hours?  For what reason
  2. What was the response of your employer?
  3. Do you have any tips for juggling a professional role within reduced hours?

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