Like many people, I had to switch to part-time working at a moment’s notice when schools were closed back in March. In some ways, it wasn’t that big a deal, but on other levels I struggled. Now that schools are re-opening, some semblance of normality is returning to my work life. Though I’m not back at the office, I can at least get back to work full time. But my experiences, and discussions with friends who have more experience with working part-time, have left me with some useful insights which I’m sharing here. Many of us work with or manage people for whom part-time work is the norm. What have I learned about being a better colleague for those people?

Hourglass flying to dust on a light background.

1. Be considerate (walk the walk as well as talking the talk)

It’s relatively easy to say that you are happy for employees to work part-time around other commitments. But to really live that ideal, you need to change your own behavior too. First up: scheduling. I might be late to the party here, but the disruptions of the last few months have finally ingrained in me the habit of consciously consulting colleagues’ working hours before scheduling meetings. Google Calendar’s “Find a time” makes this easy, and has also (in terms of entries in my own diary) made me a lot better at making sure the calendar on my screen is actually the same as the one in my head. Secondly, deadlines: a friend who is a seasoned part-timer is used to having to remind people that (for example) she may not be able to do her actions by the end of the week if today is her last working day. “People forget that others are part-time; they have expectations about how things will be progressed, and timelines get set that are unachievable.” Thirdly, chasing: my increased awareness of colleagues’ availability has helped me curb the urge to chase responses, or at least made me a bit more reasonable about how much time should elapse before I nudge. As with so many things, you get what you give; one company in our sector told staff “you’re not working from home. You’re self-isolating during a pandemic, and doing work if you can.” They were rewarded by super diligence and effort from staff, including monitoring issues at weekends and picking up tasks in evenings. Finally, waiting: I have struggled with my temporary working hours (afternoons) giving me a sense of being behind before the day has even started, with long email debates to parse or Slack discussions to catch up on. On the positive side, I have felt gratitude when I reach the point in the thread where a colleague has suggested waiting for me to log in and weigh in — in future I think I’ll be more proactively suggesting we “pause the discussion to wait until X can chip in”.

2. Respect boundaries (don’t do their job for them)

A friend who recently started working in a part-time role noted that she was struggling to retain ownership of her remit as, during her non-working hours, well-meaning colleagues would pick up tasks that properly fell within her role. It’s easily done; stepping in to what you might perceive as a “void” (someone’s non-working day) — responding to a message addressed to them, sending an update on one of their projects, providing clarifications in relation to data they’d compiled and circulated — that sort of thing. You’re intending to help, and of course on some levels, you are. But there are risks.
  1. You are undermining the concept of accountability. Your behavior is indicating that people don’t need to “own” responsiveness and proactive communication for their projects, because you or someone else will fill the gap.
  2. You are perpetuating a culture of haste, valuing impatience over quality, efficiency and respect (quality, because you may not have all the details, so your response could be wrong / unhelpful; efficiency, because the temporarily unavailable colleague might have already solved the problem / done the analysis / got the answer; and respect, because you are making progress / decisions without valuing the input of a key stakeholder).
  3. You are — at best — a thunderstealer (if someone has worked hard leading a project, let them have the joy of circulating the first indicators of success!), and at worst, making someone feel superfluous.
I’ll be thinking about these more in future, curbing that instinct to jump in, and taking a moment for a mini risk-benefit analysis: is the benefit of moving this forward worth the risk of disenfranchising a colleague and blurring our organization’s lines around accountability?

3. Don’t waste their time (don’t waste anyone’s time!)

It took me a while to adjust to my new capacity, and I only started to get realistic about scheduling after doing some basic math. I had cut my hours in half, but actually, I’d cut my capacity by 75%. How do I figure that? Time does not reduce in proportion to a reduction in capacity. A one-hour meeting takes one hour whether you work a 40-hour week or a 20-hour week. So a task that takes up 13% of a full-time work day comprises 26% of a part-time one. It depends on the nature of your role, but if your typical full-time working day breaks down into 2.5 hrs of communication, admin, etc., and 5 hrs of “getting stuff done”, your part-time working day is likely to be 2.5 hrs of comms / admin and 1.25 hrs of “getting stuff done”. So your “getting stuff done” capacity has just been reduced not by 50% but by 75%. This is a grim reality for many part-timers, I’m sure. It should make us think twice: that message you’re going to send that’s going to require 10 minutes of their time to read and respond to. That’s effectively 20, even 30, minutes of their time. Is the ‘quick question’ worth it? This has also made me think about respect for each other’s judgement. If a colleague has chosen to do something a certain way, don’t waste their time by asking them to justify themselves to you (unless you’re their manager and you feel there really is a case to answer). If they have chosen not to prioritize something you are waiting for, that will likely be for a good reason. At best, you will waste your time and theirs by trying to subvert their judgement; at worst, they will feel you are judging their performance and finding them wanting.

And what have I learned – directly, and from others – that might help you if you are switching to a part-time role?

A. Be realistic…

…about what you can achieve (see my math in point 3 above). Tasks will take ‘longer’ (in proportion to your capacity). It’s a tough one to do, in reality: you think “how can I be giving a two-week turnaround for a 2-hour task?” But do the math — and don’t set yourself up to fail.

B. Don’t refuse to be accountable…

…on the basis of time. As long as you can do A, don’t duck responsibility — if you start pushing back because of your change in capacity, you may come to resent the loss of leadership opportunities. Take ownership, and just be clear about what you will deliver and when — don’t be afraid to recalibrate people’s expectations if e.g., a weekly report is OTT given the pace of progress and your capacity.

C. Timebox your working hours

Don’t try to juggle things in a flexible schedule. You will struggle to keep track of how many hours you are doing, and start feeling guilty and questioning whether you are delivering enough. You also need to be fair to colleagues — and indeed to family — and give them consistency about when you will / won’t be available.

D. Get the balance right with meetings 

At the start of lockdown, we switched to having a weekly all-hands meeting (these had been monthly). I found it so valuable to connect with the whole team and hear about progress across different departments, remote working tips, and the latest lockdown stories. I think most companies did something similar; about 2 months in, I asked a friend how her job was going and she joked “I’d be doing better, if I didn’t spend so much time in meetings being asked how I’m doing.” It reminded me (generally, but especially in the context of my reduced capacity) to periodically question all the meetings in my diary, to be clear about what I need to get out of them, to be a bit bolder in balancing other people’s needs with my own, and a bit more ruthless in declining things where I can’t see that I have much to contribute or gain.

E. Don’t trust your memory

With greater amounts of time elapsing between your work sessions, and potentially with additional stresses or information being crowded into your brain, you may find yourself less able to remember things you have discussed or committed to doing. Make sure you have a good to-do list / scratch pad and that you are being super diligent about noting down your decisions or actions.

F. Don’t let the change of workspace limit the ways you work

I know, this one’s more of a remote working tip, but too relevant to skip. I got very frazzled about something recently but finally got on top of it when I cleared a table, got a big piece of paper and “whiteboarded” out my thoughts. I didn’t realize how much I was missing that simple bit of office kit. (Online options such as Miro can work, too, though sometimes nothing beats paper and pens).

G. Having a personal life is no longer a guilty secret

I once would have felt terribly unprofessional if my child had been commando crawling through the back of my conference call or webinar recording, but this is now a daily occurrence and, of course, it’s fine — and more than that, I think it’s made us more respectful of each others’ ability to be both professionals and parents / carers / people at the same time. So to close, here are two videos that sum up how the pandemic has changed the world of part-time and / or remote working for the better: TV news interviews interrupted by children in 2017 (Professor Robert Kelly tries to mandhandle child out of shot) and 2020 (anchor introduces himself to child). And oh, okay, here’s the spoof response to the 2017 one (cleverly done, but apologies for the sexism).
Charlie Rapple

Charlie Rapple

Charlie Rapple is co-founder of Kudos, which showcases research to accelerate and broaden its reach and impact. She is also Vice Chair of UKSG and serves on the Editorial Board of UKSG Insights., and In past lives, Charlie has been an electronic publisher at CatchWord, a marketer at Ingenta, a scholarly comms consultant at TBI Communications, and associate editor of Learned Publishing.


8 Thoughts on "Coping with Working Part-time and Being a Better Colleague to Those Who Do"

Thank you for this piece. A lot of the points in it resonated. I think the pandemic has allowed (or forced?) people to experience others’ reality in respect to part-time work, and hopefully, only good can come from that.

An article I read many years ago was a discussion of the word “only” in relation to part-time work: “She’s only part time”, “She only does three days a week” – that kind of thing. The article made the point that the use of “only” can be seen to devalue that person’s contribution, or even the person themselves. The use of “only” has grated on me ever since, and I still hear it today.

Similarly, with flexible working becoming more of a norm, I sometimes see out-of-office responses that say “I work full-time hours condensed into X days”. Why make the distinction there? Is the reason for the phrasing to emphasis that the sender is not “just” part-time? Why not list the hours that you *do* work?

Part-time work still has something of a stigma attached, it seems (although not as much as in years gone by), and I think we need to get beyond it. A more careful use of language may help. There are many reasons why someone may be a part-time worker, and the pandemic has pointed out quite clearly that choices over the hours we work can very quickly be taken out of our hands. Maybe we can finally take that step to ditch the “only” and the “just” as unnecessary qualifiers?

Thanks for commenting – great point about the language around part time work. I remember a colleague some years ago being very clear that he preferred to refer to “working days” and “non-working days”, rather than describing the latter as “days off”. He asked us (his colleagues) politely but firmly to adopt this language too. It was a useful habit to pick up / lesson to learn that continues to make me cautious about the language I use.

It’s also (for some people) a two-way street. During my period working part time, I was more than usually sensitive around my capacity and productivity. I was conscious of the risk of (a) judging myself more harshly than anyone else was doing (b) reading too much into people’s language choices. I needed to come to terms with the situation I was in and stop projecting my own anxieties, prejudices etc onto others. That’s also something I’ll remember when supporting colleagues in future.

Thanks for this article, Charlie! I have a number of colleagues struggling with this, with an additional wrinkle — financially, they CAN’T switch from full to part time. So, they’re challenged to keep up with all the normal deadlines of monthly journal production schedules, home-school young children, maintain their family relationships, and ‘take time for yourself,’ ‘give yourself grace.’ Although they’re supported in theory, they’re working themselves ragged because the work still needs to get done. (COVID certainly hasn’t freed up extra budget dollars for interns, extra help, or freelancers.) I’m not expecting you to have all the answers; just sharing a difficult situation I’ve been hearing more and more. I welcome anyone’s thoughts on how to address this untenable situation.

I am aware of one company that has offered interest-free loans to employees who have had to go to part-time hours but who cannot manage financially on a part-time salary.

I don’t imagine that this is a widespread practice, however.

Thank you, Karen – that’s a really important point that I didn’t touch upon. COVID hasn’t been a ‘normal’ scenario in which to go part time, for sure – many of us have been spending less which has helped to offset lost income. There are different considerations in different countries, too. In the UK, the government was quick to introduce a ‘mortgage holiday’ scheme and we were also able to temporarily reduce things like pension contributions. Some car insurers even offered people money back on their premiums to reflect the fact that they weren’t driving anywhere. All these things made the transition to part time work / salary different under COVID than it would be in other circumstances. Even still, you make the good point that for many people none of these options were available, or didn’t make enough of a difference, to enable people to choose the part time option. Which creates the too-common scenario where people are trying to complete a full-time workload in what may boil down to less than full-time capacity, while juggling other responsibilities. Anon’s point above, about interest-free loans, is a really interest response (solution?) from employers. This is a challenge that could usefully be discussed further whether here and / or at seminars etc – what can an employer do to help in this scenario; indeed, what is it their duty to do, to support colleagues caught between this particular rock and hard place? Thanks for raising this.

Great piece Charlie. I’ve been amazed at how those with caring responsibilities have managed to get so much done over the last few months.

One other tip from me, related to juggling life and work, is that the workspace / desk doesn’t need to stay the same. I need focused hours at my computer for many tasks. Other more creative thinking happens in cafés over coffee or while walking.

Niggly problems or things that need different thinking might happen by asking advice from my partner or friends over dinner.

These more creative things wouldn’t be served as well sitting at the laptop.

Finally we may be seeing that presenteeism is not a healthy way to measure value!

Thank you Bernie, and yes, that’s a good point. Funnily enough, just yesterday, I was grappling with something and annoyed that I had to stop work on it to do the school run. And then, of course, the answer I was looking for came to me in the 5 minute walk to the school gate. The irony and aptness of that (having just published this post) made me smile.

Exactly! It is hard to remember in the moment. It’s a bit serendipitous. But switching up the day is important I think.
Lying in bed in the quiet early morning is a good time for me to think things through too.
I now think of 9-5 in an office as a bizarre concept!

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