Wednesday 5 October 2022

Working part time

This is, by definition, a self-indulgent blogpost as it is about me. As of 1st October 2022, I will be working part time, changing from a five-day to four-day working week. Many people do this already, including many academics, so why bother writing about it? First, I want to discuss reasons for and against doing it, and why I eventually chose to switch. Second, I want to offer some potential advice based on lessons I have learnt in the process of switching.

Why go part time?

The obvious answer is to work less. Many people need to go part time because of non-work responsibilities – looking after children or supporting relatives. Some have second jobs or side-projects that they want or need to dedicate more time to. Some simply want time off. For me there was no single reason for the change. I have parenting commitments, so often need to leave work early to pick the children up from school, but both my children are at school now until 3.15pm (apart from in school holidays, which is a whole different problem and discussion about balancing parenting and work commitments during these times). I have some academically inclined ideas that are not part of my job but I would like to pursue. I would also like a bit of time away from work that doesn’t involve having to constantly think about whether the children are hungry, or bored, or over-excited, or late for some extra-curricular activity, even if it is one morning each week. The primary reason then is simply to have a bit of time that is not fully booked – whether that be work or parenting.

The pandemic led a lot of us to reconsider our work-life balance. Over a year ago I thought about going part time but decided that the best thing to do then was to put more effort into managing my time – saying no to things, realising when a specific job did not need 100% of my attention and effort etc. This helped make the decision this time around easier. I had gone through the process of cutting back as much as I could, and it had been largely successful, but I still wanted to change to four days a week. It made sense for me, at this point in my life and career, to try something different.

The positives are clear to me: less work, less stress, more time to think and reflect on both work and life. What about the negatives? The obvious one is money. This is a particular concern given the cost of living crisis that is only going to get worse in the short-to-medium term. I do not have an obvious answer to this. Finances will be stretched more than they were before, but my family is in a relatively fortunate position financially so we should be able to afford it. I appreciate I am lucky to be in this position, and many simply cannot afford to work part time. The second possible negative is perhaps the main reason many academics do not work part time: they are worried about still working a full time job but receiving less pay. This is partly why spending a year managing my time better persuaded me this was the correct decision. Ultimately though there is no reason why I should be guarding my time better on a part time vs a full time contract – we should all be guarding our time better regardless of our contracted hours. The third negative I have only just encountered is guilt. As the new academic year begins, I have less teaching than most of my colleagues and I cannot help feel some guilt about this. I feel less “in the trenches” than before. However, the stretched resources of most academic departments isn’t really my fault and I’m being paid less money, so I’ll learn to get over this. There are plenty of other positive and negative aspects to working part time, but each will differ dependent on the individual. My only conclusion here is that working part time is worth considering. Even if you decide not to, the process of thinking through the positives and negatives has the effect that working full time becomes more of an active choice than a default option.

Lessons learnt

Given I have just started working part time, I have no words of advice on how to ensure you keep your non-contracted hours work-free. I am sure this will be a challenge for me. It has taken a while to get to this point though, and it is worth considering what I did and whether that was sensible. As I have already said, I have been thinking about this for well over a year and took active steps to manage my time better before eventually committing. This is definitely worth doing, as if you can’t manage your time effectively then decreasing your contracted hours isn’t necessarily going to help. Think about what jobs you need to do, what jobs you want to do, and what jobs are not necessary and do not bring you joy. Every time you are offered a new “opportunity”, do not say yes straight away. I am now in the habit of immediately replying saying something like “this sounds interesting but I will need time to consider it. I will try to get back to you next week”. That gives me the breathing room to consider the costs and benefits and whether I really want to do it. If I am in any doubt, my default option is now to say no.

Once you have decided you want to work part time the next step is to make sure you know what jobs will be taken away from you. The good thing about academia is some of our responsibilities are very clear and concrete – a specific module, a set number of project students, a citizenship duty. Ideally, your department will have a clear workload model that shows which aspects of your job equate to the amount of time you are cutting. If not, things can be trickier, but it should still be reasonably clear what might equate to (eg.) 20% of your workload. There might be others in the department or wider university that you know who can offer advice on this. My advice is to think through 2-3 possible ways to cut your workload and decide which you would prefer.

When you feel you have a clear idea, approach your Head of Department and talk to them. You will likely need to explain (1) why you want to do this and (2) what you would like to cut from your current workload. Hopefully your Head of Department will be supportive of any choice you have made concerning reducing your contracted hours, however they do have a responsibility to balance workloads across the department with the limited resources they have available. This will almost inevitably lead to some degree of negotiation. The more prep you can do in advance of this, and the more options you have to suggest, the better. Personally, it took 2-3 meetings over a few weeks to arrive at a solution that we were both happy with. Do not immediately accept the first proposal that is presented to you, particularly if you are in a face-to-face meeting. Take your time and think clearly about whether it is a fair offer, preferably after the meeting. Think about possible changes to any proposal that would make it fairer and set these out in an email with your rationale, then set up another meeting for further discussion.

My final piece of advice is to be brave (that is a bit hyperbolic, it is only working part time after all). It took me a while to get to the point that I was willing to commit. I was not 100% sure it was the correct decision, and I am still not sure it is the correct decision. However, I did get to the point where I felt it was correct to try. I am sure there will be a time when I go back to full time work (sooner or later). I hope I can at least look back on this period of my life and appreciate the extra time I had. I also hope I use the time effectively, whatever that means.  

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