Get a life, but try not to lose pals

October 13, 2006

Are you happy with your work-life balance? If not, consider working part time, says Harriet Swain. But bear in mind that flexible hours can bring problems of their own, not least in relationships with colleagues.

The toddler or tenure? The elderly mother or the monograph? The novel or the neuroscientists' annual conference? Feeling torn? Why not go part time and have it all? Well, because that's probably not what you'll get, warns Caroline Gattrell, a teaching fellow at Lancaster University Management School, who has researched work-life balance.

"Anyone contemplating part-time work should really think it through very carefully before they take that route," she says. "There is evidence to suggest that once you start working part time you can be marginalised and it is difficult to keep yourself on a career track."

Talk to others who work part time, she suggests, and make sure you know what it is likely to mean for short and long-term career prospects.

If your mind is made up, you need to approach your boss with a clear idea of what you want. You need to say how many hours you are looking for, on which days, and how long you intend the arrangement to last.

Helen Scott, executive officer of the Universities Personnel Association, says it is a good idea to set a limit on the period you intend to work part time, even if you envisage it lasting for longer. The university is contractually obliged to give you your full-time post back if you want it at the end of that period.

Bear in mind that the longer you work part time the harder it will be to revert to full-time working because the university may have had to close a course or employ someone to take your place.

"Think through carefully what the implications will be in terms of other staff and how the job could be done," says Simonetta Manfredi, director of the Centre for Diversity Research at Oxford Brookes University. "Present your line manager with possible solutions."

She says it is useful to discuss with other colleagues the effect it may have on them, and again find solutions. If this is done, they don't feel resentful about having to pick up the pieces.

Keeping up with your research can be the hardest aspect of working part time, says Nicola Carslaw, who works mornings as a part-time lecturer in the environment department at York University.

She says that being part of a research group makes life slightly easier because it keeps up the momentum behind research, although she says she has to manage her part in the group carefully. She also regularly works evenings to get everything done. "But then a lot of academics work more than 40 hours a week even if they work full time, so it's a problem with academia rather than anything else," she says.

You will need to find out early on about the special conditions that apply to part-time workers entered in the research assessment exercise. Don't expect managers to find all this out on your behalf.

You will also have to work hard at maintaining your profile among your peers. Carslaw recommends attending at least one major international conference a year.

"If your time is limited, you have to be really careful about targeting particular meetings and make sure people know you are there," she says. She also advises making a particular effort to keep in touch with people generally. "When they are putting together proposals, they need to know that you are still around," she says.

Gattrell says it is important to keep focused and not to get sidelined by things that will not advance your career, such as unnecessary administrative tasks. "It is about having a balance between being clear about your commitment without, on the other hand, accepting work for which you aren't paid," she says.

For Carslaw, a difficulty is never having a long stretch of time to concentrate on work because she leaves at lunchtime every day to look after her children. "If I was going part time and didn't have small children, it would probably be better to work fewer, longer days," she says.

Roger Kline, head of equality and employment rights at the University and College Union, says you must ensure that you have proper access to professional development, departmental development and time for scholarship and research. You also need to check that you will have access to a computer and a room, even if it is shared.

"The bottom line is you shouldn't be treated less favourably because you work part time, even if some of the things will be pro rata," he argues.

Nor should you be at a disadvantage if you go for promotion. He says that most full-time jobs can be done part time, and it is worth asking employers whether they would consider a job share.

Scott says: "There has to be an element of give-and-take and trust on both sides because otherwise you end up being a jobsworth." She advises sticking to fixed hours as much as possible but being willing to stay on longer if a seminar overruns or there is an important departmental meeting.

"You have to realise that if you work part time you are going to miss out," she warns. "If a departmental meeting is always on a Wednesday afternoon, don't always take Wednesdays off."

But you must watch out for managers deliberately changing meetings to the time when you are not there to downgrade your job and pay you less, Kline warns.

He says it is worth bearing in mind that because most part-time workers are women, employers tend to be twitchy about the possibility of sex discrimination. "Don't throw that around for no reason," he says. "But it does give extra bargaining power."

Further Information Universities Personnel Association:

University and College Union:


Think it through

Make things as easy as possible for your manager and colleagues

Keep up your research

Give and take

Avoid being exploited

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