The Part-Time Mutiny

The percentage of people working part-time has hit an all-time high. Fewer want full-time hours, but are firm leaders on board?

We’ve all watched wonderfully talented young people leave a field because they don’t want to log sixty hours a week earning a law partnership, say, or aren’t quite suited to the round-the-clock intensity of being a media executive. It can be gutting to watch.

Now the workforce is pushing for even shorter workweeks. The percentage of people working part-time by choice is at an all-time high of around 14%, according to US Department of Labor figures. And across demographics, 89% of employees would support four-day workweeks, according to a study by Bankrate, with even higher figures among younger workers (93% of Gen Zers are on board). In exchange, most workers would accept a concession, such as more in-office hours (27%), lower pay (10%), or longer hours over fewer days (54%).

There’s only one problem: Most leaders aren’t yet on board. “It’s the slippery-slope argument,” says culture and change expert Alma Derricks, senior client partner at Korn Ferry. “An executive said to me, ‘I don’t think my people are working five days now. If I go to four, they’ll work three.’”

Such arrangements have long been available in tech, one of the few fields where highly paid employees could consistently snag part-time jobs with full benefits and career mobility. The option arose as a concession by employers desperate to attract and retain top talent in a tight job market. In exchange, tech workers kept the technology ecosystem up and running, and otherwise went about their lives.

Now their “part-time, please” attitude is spreading across the workforce, and the shift is significant. In 2010, 17 million people in the US worked part-time, a number that has jumped to 22.5 million today. The reasons vary: In survey data, Gen Zers typically say they want to enjoy a healthy work-life balance and pursue hobbies. Many millennials are balancing childcare and eldercare duties. Boomers are keen to continue working past retirement age, but with more time for friends, family, or hobbies (recent survey data from T. Rowe Price shows that 57% of retirees want to continue working).

To be sure, leaders correctly point out that for some roles, the concept is already moot. For example, shorter hours wouldn’t matter in roles that are already managed as outcome based. “If an employee is completing their tasks and being a good colleague, their hour count already wouldn’t matter as much,” says Paul Fogel, sector leader for professional search in consumer and technology at Korn Ferry. Yet part-time options have one enormous benefit: Companies can hire employees to do what they’re best at. This means that if a potential retiree is a wonderful team leader but lax at organization, their employer can potentially focus their role on the skills they excel at.

To manage the coming shift, experts say, companies might consider creating a new HR role, tasking an “Hours Czar” with figuring out the details: hours, benefits, promotions, and eligibility for part-time work. The particulars are myriad. Does a manager have to approve the schedule? Can everyone in a group move to part-time? Are minimum performance ratings required to participate? Does the promotion path take longer? What about customer-service roles: Will those employees have part-time options? There are many questions to work through. “If it’s not managed properly, there’s a real risk of creating resentment,” says Maria Amato, senior client partner at Korn Ferry.

The biggest challenge, experts say, is to maintain equity and fairness in opportunities and options. For one, DEI issues may come to the fore. “Part-time roles may well be disproportionately be taken up by some groups,” says business psychologist James Bywater, senior client partner at Korn Ferry. And the biggest challenge may be to make sure that part-time roles don’t involve unwanted career trade-offs, as full-time staffers potentially interacting with more people and clients. “Is there a Faustian bargain hidden here?” Bywater asks. That is yet another question for the Hours Czar.


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