Guest post: the problem of part-time work

I'm so excited to have my first guest blogger on I-develop-me, Jacqui Simpson. I met Jacqui about 13 years ago when we both worked at P&O Ports. She is one of my favourite people and is an awesome HR Director. I wish I could see her more but it's tricky with her being in New Zealand and me being in Singapore.

Jacqui and I both have two boys and have faced similar challenges at work. Here she writes about part-time work which is a hot topic for any working mum. I ranted wrote about it over here. Make sure you leave Jacqui some feedback.

Take the floor Jacqui!

A couple of weeks ago I asked my manager if I could reduce my hours from full time (40 hours a week) to about 60% of a full time week.  It didn’t go down so well.  
I have two young children, Oscar who is nearly 8 and at primary school and Reuben who is nearly 4 and still at Kindergarten. To cut to the chase, the juggle of two full time working parents with children’s commitments and needs was starting to wear a bit thin.
Don’t get me wrong, we are pretty lucky on the childcare front because we do have a nanny, she works about 32 hours a week for us and we also have my husband’s mother who drops my children off to their respective school and kindergarten one morning a week and does one pick up and afternoon care, dinner, baths, showers etc a week, but that can be a stretch even for a fit and reasonably healthy eighty year old. The thing is, when your kids get sick, or they need extra support with homework, or they are just having a hard time with something…it’s not child care they need, its parenting.
While all that’s going on, my husband and I both have fairly senior roles, he is a principal engineer in a global engineering consulting company and I’m an HR Director for a global health care company. We both love our jobs and we are committed to our careers, but it’s a major juggle, more so when one of us is travelling out of town or overseas with our jobs but also just in the every day.  I also constantly live with the guilt that I’m not putting in enough time at work, or enough time at home. 
The contradiction to this all is I also see it from the organisation’s side, only today I asked why we had a leader in one part of our business working just 16 hours a week and commented that it was pretty challenging to delivering in that role on such low hours (yes call me a hypocrite). It’s also more expensive in direct costs for organisations to have part time workers. When we organise training, events, conferences or any type of face to face communication (which we do a lot of) with our geographically dispersed workforce, having a high number of part timers (which we do) adds a huge amount to the overall cost in flights, travel, meals and accommodation. In my 20 plus years of HR experience, the real commitment I have seen to part-time or flexible work practices in organisations is still in its infancy.  
I’ve worked in part time mode myself in a previous role and have managed people in my own team who were part time as well as working with colleagues who have been part time.  One of the challenges is that in the end all meetings and interactions end up needing to work around the part time person and their needs, it’s creates inequity and over time other employees get very resentful of this. When I was working part time, I never really hid it, but I also didn’t shout it from the rooftops. If people asked if I could attend a meeting on my day off, I could then decide if I thought it was worth me shuffling child care to attend, or if not, I would simply say I was not available on that day, just as I would if I was not available due to other work commitments. In doing this, I know it didn’t advance the cause of part time workers, but I needed to make it work for me and that was what I found to be effective at the time.
I’ve long believed that the companies who can nail the whole part time work issue will access an amazing talent pool; I’ve met so many awesome women who completely opt out of the workforce sometimes for a few years and sometimes for much longer after they have children, because they just can’t find hours that work with their parenting commitments, but who would take on a part time job if the hours and the tasks were right (they don’t want to go back to a role that does not utilise their capabilities either). These people are no less committed to their careers or their organisations; generally I’ve found them to be more committed. All the mum’s I’ve ever worked with are incredibly efficient in the hours they work, quite simply they have to be because you can’t leave a 3 year old standing in the dark outside a closed kindergarten just because you didn’t get your work finished on time!
I don’t know yet what the answer is to this challenge, but one thing is clear to me, there is a major paradigm shift required, the 40 hour week is a man-made creation which is great because it also means we can un-make it. Our thinking (including my own!) is that ‘normal’ is someone being available for 40 hours a week.  We must work harder to change this thinking and find ways to make it work for organisations. But what’s the sweet spot? Where part time or flexible work can function really well for organisations but also is good for the people? What if we said a normal week was 20 hours but you could work more (or less) if you wanted? How would that change our perspectives and make work a more human place?  Keen to hear your thoughts.