Negotiating Reduced Hours

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
c.2005 Newhouse News Service
Photo by John Kuntz

Whether to care for children, assist aging parents, or ease into retirement, many American professionals are pushing back at employers' demands for longer workweeks and 24-7 accessibility.

They don't want to quit their jobs. Nor do they want to take scut work at low pay to get a part-time schedule. Instead, they're negotiating reduced hours compatible with their personal lives, often with a promise to live up to excellent track records.

"Working part time has let me feel I don't have to choose between two pieces of myself," said Diane E. Thompson, 38, an attorney with the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation in East St. Louis, Ill., who cut her hours when her first child was born. "I feel like a whole person."

The Society for Human Resource Management
found in August that about 33 percent of employers have formal part-time positions for professional staff and 39 percent allow reduced hours case-by-case. Two-thirds of respondents said part-time options helped retain critical employees. The survey did not break down results by profession.

"This is a structural work force shift," said Cathy Benko, a principal at the accounting and consulting firm Deloitte in San Francisco. "It'll continue to be more and more commonplace as people deal with this (problem of), `My life doesn't fit into my work."'

Other solutions include telecommuting, shifting work hours around, and negotiating firm start and end times to the workday. But if the loss of income can be accommodated, going part-time may be the answer.

Employers on the forefront of the flexibility movement warn that part-time hours aren't right for everyone. At Deloitte, Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers -- which all encourage work-life balance to counter the brain drain afflicting many professional services firms -- employees must meet performance standards to qualify.

Effective part-timers remain 100 percent committed, recognizing that the job sometimes comes first. When they work outside their agreed-upon hours, they take time off later to compensate, understanding that flexibility works in both directions.

Bonnie N. Dick, 67, a part-time employment consultant in Cleveland for the information technology firm CGI, has covered for sick colleagues or attended meetings on her days off. "I'm flexible," Dick said. "If the work was there, I wasn't going to go home."

Having a backup for personal responsibilities can be key.

Margaret Martin, 32, a Washington, D.C., attorney, works four 10-hour days -- an 80 percent schedule for her law firm. Her husband, a non-lawyer with a regular schedule, picks up their two children from day care and gets dinner started at home. She arrives in time to bathe the kids and put them to bed.

"I couldn't do it if he didn't leave every day at 5," Martin said, noting that many other women who tried reduced-hour schedules at her firm ended up quitting. They were married to lawyers with similarly demanding hours.

On the flip side, it's important to distinguish between emergencies that require extra work hours and tasks that can wait.

"You have to set boundaries and say no," said Jennifer Allyn, a director in the office of diversity at PricewaterhouseCoopers in New York. "The biggest challenge with part-time work is that the work creeps to full time. Nobody else is going to manage that for you."

Sandy Bell, 46, of Oregon City, Ore., negotiated a 60 percent schedule after 18 years at Providence Health System. Six months later, she moved to an 80 percent arrangement, since she was working those hours anyway.

When Heidi B. Miller was training to become a doctor, she observed female physicians who were supposed to be working 80 percent shouldering full-time burdens.

"They were getting screwed," said Miller, who sought out a true part-time job in St. Louis when she finished her residency. "They were going into work five days a week and only being paid for four."

For many part-timers, the main hurdle is overcoming guilt at seeing colleagues working longer hours.

Maryella Gockel, flexibility strategy leader with Ernst & Young in New York, forced herself to walk down the hall saying goodnight to co-workers when she left around 5:30 p.m. to take her children home to Westfield, N.J.

"That's very hard to do," Gockel said. "It's probably the hardest thing that I've coached a person on a reduced time schedule to do."

For all that people love reduced-time schedules, they acknowledge tradeoffs: less income, perhaps limited work responsibilities, and often fewer employee benefits. It may take longer to win promotions. Some firms sideline part-timers completely.

Providence Health's Bell moved from managing a department to a project-management job when she went part time. She knew she would be leaving the inner circle of leadership, but didn't foresee the loss of identity.

"I felt like I was on a fast-moving train and hanging onto the outside," she said. "I made a decision to stop, but realizing the train would continue on."

Part-time work is largely used by women, who tend to do more child and elder care. At Ernst & Young, 27 percent of female senior managers -- a group the firm couldn't afford to lose -- are working flexibly.

But many men in their 20s and 30s, taking active parenting roles, are less willing than their fathers were to commit their lives to their employers.

"There is just this dramatic brain drain of men as well as women leaving companies because they're not being offered the opportunity to live as a balanced worker," said Joan Williams, a law professor at the University of California specializing in work-life issues.

An unpublished study of IBM workers, presented last year at a national psychology conference, found that couples with a combined workweek of 60 hours had the highest job satisfaction and lowest work-family conflict, when compared to two full-time workers and to one full-time worker supported by an at-home partner.

"The managers often said (part-time workers) were the most effective people on the team and felt they were the most productive," said E. Jeffrey Hill, associate professor of family life at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, the lead author.


-- Communicate your schedule to bosses, colleagues and customers.

-- Set realistic deadlines and expectations.

-- Flexibility goes both ways: Be willing to cover job emergencies.

-- Make backup plans for personal obligations in case of unscheduled work.

-- Differentiate between urgent tasks and those you can delay or delegate, and decline work for which you don't have time.

-- Shed guilt: Be confident and others will follow your example.


-- -- a Families and Work Institute project on flexibility

-- -- a nonprofit institute promoting balanced lives

-- -- a work-life balance site aimed at working moms

-- -- a commercial site on negotiating flexible arrangements

(Katherine Reynolds Lewis can be contacted at katherine.lewis(at)
This article was originally published on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2005.