The Power of Flexibility

by Staff - Original publish date: January 19, 2012

In the early evening on a recent Thursday, Kiran Arora, a consultant at the compensation firm Watson & Wyatt Worldwide, was getting ready to leave for the weekend. No, it wasn't a holiday or a long weekend. Her work week runs Mondays through Thursdays. Arora traded in that one extra day each week to spend time with her family and her children.

In a 2000 poll of more than 3,500 company executives by recruiting firm Management Recruiters International, Inc., 61 percent of the participants believed the 9-to-5 workday will disappear in the next 10 years.

According to a 1998 study by the Employment Policy Foundation, 18 percent of the U.S. workforce breaks the traditional Monday-through-Friday workweek, and the 9-to-5 workday. Part-timers cut their workweek short for various reasons, including tending to family (children and the elderly); pursuing personal hobbies; volunteering in community service; caring for health conditions; and many others.

For part-timers, priorities other than work can assume more importance. "It was not difficult to make the decision to go part-time when I found out I was having a baby," said Arora.

"From an employer's point of view, it is better to accommodate a valuable employee who wants to work part-time than it is to have the person quit," said Kristin Accipiter, a spokesperson for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

People who decide to work part-time for personal reasons say they are happy with their new lives. According to a Seattle Times/North West Cable News poll of 600 people in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, part-timers are as satisfied with their jobs as people who work long hours. The respondents said the reason is that they have time to pursue what they want outside of work.

Scholars found similar results in a study published by Purdue University in 1998. Of the 87 professionals and mangers participating in the study who had become part-time workers for personal reasons, 62 percent said their work arrangements were highly successful. Only 7 percent of the respondents reported low success in the arrangements. (See Lee, M.D., MacDermid, S.M., et al, Improvising New Careers: Accommodation, Elaboration, Transformation, West Lafayette, IN: The Center for Families at Purdue University, 1998.)

Drawbacks in Career Advancement and Compensation
The sense of personal fulfillment that may come with going part-time can be tempered by certain economic disadvantages. It is up to you to determine whether the benefits of working part-time outweigh the potential costs. For example, the traditional wisdom that taking time off from work or working part-time can hurt one's career is at least partially true. "Your career advancement definitely slows down," said Arora, "but it also depends on you." Because of her limited work hours, she could not pursue clients who required full-time service.

"The key is to be more aggressive," said Arora. "There is pressure to prove you are no less than a full-time employee." She said she is treated differently at work because she has less time to socialize with her colleagues. Her advice to would-be part-timers is to be proactive in forging strong professional relationships.

Another potential drawback for going part-time is the pay gap. Part-time workers should receive the same hourly rate of pay as comparable full-time workers, however that is not always the case. In the summer of 2000, national data on employment, average hours worked, and average hourly earnings for part-time workers became available for the first time from the National Compensation Survey at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The data showed that economy-wide earnings for full-time workers averaged $15.77 versus $8.89 per hour for part-time workers. This pattern held for law teachers, where average hourly earnings for full-time workers ($58.67) exceeded those of their part-time counterparts ($20.65); for physicians, however, the inequality was reversed, with part-timers averaging $56.57, compared with $37.49 for full-timers.

The variation by occupation in the relationship between full- and part-time average hourly earnings presents a future challenge for researchers. The BLS plans to look into what factors account for this variation and find whether this relationship is constant by occupational group, industry, or area.

In 1998, the Employment Policy Foundation did its own analysis of wages for part-time and full-time workers. Without any adjustments, the pay gap between part-timers and full-timers was 50 percent. However, after the data was adjusted to account for typical statistical disparities by sex, age, race, education, school attendance, union membership, and broadly defined industry and occupation categories, the gap shrank dramatically - to under 12 percent.

Although relatively little research has been done on the difference in benefit provision for part-time and full-time workers, the gap does appear significant, according to the Employment Policy Foundation. Analysts have used some of the techniques described above to explain the gap, but many find that it remains. This finding may reflect that it usually costs more to provide a given benefit to part-timers than to full-timers.

Assert Yourself and Demonstrate Your Value
In most cases, senior managers hold the power to decide whether to allow a full-time employee to go part-time. "The key is to show your employer that you can be just as valuable, even if you are working fewer hours or working from home," said Erisa Ojimba, a compensation consultant for "When you approach your manager, be prepared and go with a proposal," said Ojimba.

Arora stressed the importance of constant communication with managers to avoid any work conflict. The most frequent problem when someone works part-time is in logistics, such as scheduling meetings.

While managers should be aware of part-timers' hours, the part-time employee should clarify whether and when overtime payment is due. "If you are classified as a part-timer, but you worked more than 32 hours one week, you should get paid overtime," explained Ojimba.

Arora agreed. "Your manager needs to know that your day off does not mean you will work at home, because that would defeat the purpose of your working part-time."

Working part-time does not mean the employee should get paid less. Wages should be prorated, so that the employee earns as much per hour as if he or she were working full-time. Although some employers may offer partial benefits to part-time workers, employers in general are not obligated to offer them. It is also wise to ask about eligibility for bonuses and vacation time.

Alternatives to Part-Time Work
There are alternatives for employees who would like to work part-time but cannot. According to SHRM, 26 percent of all companies support telecommuting. Of the larger employers (those with more than 5,000 employees), 12 percent offer on-site childcare; 21 percent offer company-supported childcare; and 12 percent offer subsidized childcare. And in 2000, 15 percent of employers offered lactation rooms for mothers of infant children, compared with 9 percent the previous year.