How Can We Make Part-Time Tech Roles Work For Both Employee and Employer?

Have you ever wanted to work in a part-time role in a technical field but fear that it will stall your career? Are you a manager and feel that hiring part-time employees will be a death knell to your team’s productivity?

These unfortunately common misconceptions are based on a negative stigma around part-time work and rigid notions about what technical roles should look like. These notions, along with inflexible and ingrained corporate cultures, lead to a dearth of part-time opportunities in technical fields.

However, reduced work weeks are in demand, and not just from part-time mothers (which is what everyone assumes). The lack of these positions can drive people out of their companies, or out of the technical workforce altogether. According to a 2017 study by FlexJobs.com, “The number of people who say they’ve quit a job due to lack of flexibility has nearly doubled from 17% in 2014 to 32% in 2017.”

If you are an individual contributor and interested in part-time work, this post will give you some tips on how to make such a position work well for you and your team.

If you are a manager, please open your mind to the possibility that part-time tech team members can help you meet your hiring and project goals, while increasing loyalty

and attraction as an employer and meeting the needs of an ever-growing population that wants more flexible work options.

[Meg’s Note: This post was written by Sarah Henrikson, a Data Engineer at Amazon on the Amazon Lending team under the Consumer Payments org (and also my delightful roommate at Grace Hopper 2018 in September). She holds a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Information Systems and has worked in tech roles for over 22 years. Sarah is an avid mentor and is passionate about supporting the growth of women in tech.  Most relevant today is that she has worked part-time at tech companies twice during her career, and she figured out how to make the experience benefit both her and her employer. You can find Sarah on Twitter and on LinkedIn. Please reach out to her if you have questions or would like a copy of her Grace Hopper 2018 Presentation: “Part-Time Tech: Tips for Success.” She’s quite the Popular Lady after that talk!]

We Need to Start the Conversation Around Part-Time Tech.

Despite the difficulty finding part-time tech jobs, I think we can change that. Call me an optimist, but my research, my own experiences, the demand from tech workers of all types for this type of role, and a hefty dose of faith in the power of group-powered change make me believe that we can make part-time technical roles more prevalent and successful for employees as well as employers.

I recently spoke at the Grace Hopper Celebration in Houston about this very topic.  Going into my presentation—“Part-time Tech: Benefits and Tips for Success”—I was eager to share my own experiences so that others may benefit from the tips I provided on making it work, as well as encourage managers to offer more part-time technical roles in their own organizations.

What I wasn’t prepared for was how much more passionate I would feel about this after hearing from so many women after my talk, women who wanted part-time work, but either found their companies unsupportive or were afraid to ask in the first place.  

And it’s not just working moms who feel this way! People nearing retirement age are another group keenly interested in being able to convert to a part-time role rather than retire completely. And I have male co-workers and friends who have expressed interest in part-time work but never felt like it was possible.

Their worries are real. We may have smartphones, self-driving cars, and talking digital home assistants, but when it comes to flexible hours for technical employees, we’re practically in the Flintstone era. Remote work is becoming more commonplace, but working fewer hours is usually unheard of.

For the few who manage to find part-time work, they often suffer because their coworkers often think that part-time work means a lack of career focus, or they are not as appreciated for their efforts as their full-time counterparts. This is a crazy mindset, in my opinion. Flex jobs are increasingly in demand. Companies that offer more flexible options and understand the value of the employee, no matter the arrangement, will reap the benefits.

One woman told me that she had totally disregarded a part-time employee in IT at her company and, after listening to my talk, she changed how she felt about the woman. I was touched and thankful that she shared this with me, and that what I said changed her perception. I have had at least thirty smart, technical men and women reach out to me since my presentation asking for advice or being able to relate to things I said.

I spoke with one woman for about an hour about her current part-time position, which is limited in length and impacting her career growth. She is not receiving support from her manager and is disappointed that she will soon return to a full-time schedule. If she could find a flexible opportunity elsewhere, she might leave the workplace altogether, despite enjoying the company and the work.

This would be a loss for her and the company, as she has been a valuable employee for many years. My advice to her was to talk to her manager—put together a retrospective about the time she’s been working part-time, including the work she has accomplished in that time. We need to speak up to make these roles more commonplace and supported. We need to fight for what we want and show management that it can be a win-win situation for employee and employer. It may take time. One manager may not be supportive, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find someone who is.

Why Employers Should Explore this Opportunity

To quote a theme from this year’s Grace Hopper conference—WE ARE HERE. We are intelligent, technical, strong, loyal and human.

Employers… wake up! This is a huge opportunity for you to grasp.

As an employer or manager, if you allow and support part-time roles, you can:

  • Increase diversity and inclusivity
  • Access a larger tech force
  • Increase loyalty and morale
  • Reduce turnover and absenteeism
  • Possibly convert part-time workers to full-time, ultimately
  • Improve attractiveness of your company and the role
  • Help your employees retain skills that help your team and company
  • Reduce hiring and training costs
  • Drop costs faster than productivity

Lessons from My Own Experience in a Part-Time Tech Role on a Full-Time Tech Team

As with anything at work, I found that it totally depends on the manager, the company and the people you work with.

I was fortunate to be able to work twice throughout my career in part-time roles.

Both times, I asked to go part-time when circumstances in my life demanded that I reduce my hours. If my companies had turned me down, I would have looked elsewhere for part-time work. If I couldn’t find any, I would have been forced to find work outside of IT and possibly walk away from the knowledge and skills I had gained over the years.

I didn’t want to do this—my career was important to me. Just because I needed to work fewer hours didn’t mean that I didn’t care about my jobs and my companies. I was lucky both times to find part-time work at my then-current employer, but not everyone is so fortunate. There are people with even more years and depth of experience as I that leave their companies or technical work altogether in order to find a position that fits with the demands their personal life puts on them.  

This is a true shame. I’m not talking about uneducated or unqualified employees—but ones full of talent, loyalty and bright ideas. When a company loses a person such as this because they need a more flexible schedule and can’t find it, it’s a waste of talent and training.

My First, Challenging Part-Time Role

My first technical part-time job came when I worked as a database administrator after the birth of my second child. I found myself overwhelmed by having two small children at home, nursing the baby, and a job that kept me away from home for 10 hours a day after commute.

I was fortunate to be able to return part-time and remained so for about a year until my baby was older and I felt ready to tackle a full load again. During this time, I continued to work hard, learn new things, and satisfy my customers. However, I did suffer a few challenges:

  1. I struggled to keep my hours part-time.
    There was  a large workload and a lack of proper mechanisms to keep it in check.
  2. I wasn’t considered for a promotion.
    During this year, my manager left the company and a new one had to be named. At this point, I had worked for the company 3+ years as a Sr. DBA and they chose someone else that had recently joined the company to take over as manager, specifically telling me I was the first choice but passed over because I worked part-time.

    No one had ever asked if I were interested in returning full-time to take this position. I was immediately discounted and my career thought of as a dead-end by my managers. This was, as you’d expect, extremely disappointing.

    This is why  part-time work can turn out poorly: it’s not properly appreciated or managed. For some, this may be good enough—to be able to have part-time work and be okay with not having any career growth, but I’d like to think we can do better than that.
My Second, and Much Better, Part-Time Role

My second experience working part-time blew the first one out of the water, and is a better example of how a part-time tech job should be. However, the road to part-time was not all gold.

Two years ago, as a data engineer (DE) working at Amazon, I decided that I needed to go part-time again, this time to reduce stress and hopefully resolve some health issues I’ve suffered from in recent years. I researched company policies and knew Amazon had policies for part-time employment, but I knew this was not common, and that it was handled on a case-by-case basis.

When I approached my manager about working a reduced schedule, she was not receptive. I understood this concern as I was the sole-DE on the team. However, when I approached two other teams, both declined to accommodate this despite having multiple positions open.

One of these managers even told me that he could give me a full-time job and I could just work fewer hours without advertising the part-time status. I turned him down, thinking that would certainly not garner me any respect with the rest of the team, not to mention that the part-time verbal promise likely wouldn’t fly once I started on the team.

Fortunately, a Data Engineering manager whom I had worked with on an internal conference knew I was looking for a new home within Amazon. When I mentioned that I was looking for a 30-hour per week job, I had fully expected a refusal. However, he readily agreed and said he’d be thrilled to have me on the team. He mentioned that his VP was a huge supporter of other flexible work arrangements—the VP had founded a get-back-to-work internship program for moms who had been out of the workforce—and would support this.

Sure enough, he double-checked with his management chain, and I was hired into a 30-hour per week position as a data engineer in Amazon Lending, where I still work today. Funnily enough, two of those managers that had turned me down (my own previous manager as well as one of the others) have since changed their mind and told me they’d be willing to support a part-time schedule because they had positions to fill and realized a partial-BIS (butt in seat) is better than none.

Working part-time on this team was practically seamless. How could that be?

  • My manager put several mechanisms in place, such as agile development, that made it easier to stick to 30-hours per week.
  • I had full support from my management chain and team.
  • I was treated the same as full-time employees when it came to career growth, benefits, and more.

How You Can Make Part-Time Tech Roles a Success for Both the Employer and the Employer

It was in fact my managers who encouraged me to share my story at Grace Hopper.Even today they are just as passionate about increasing part-time opportunities across organizations as I am. Below I’ve shared the tips from my Grace Hopper presentation—which came from my experience working part-time at Amazon—with the hope that employers and those wishing to work part-time can benefit.

Tips for Part-Time Employees
  • Don’t be afraid to ask. Make yourself heard.
  • Be strict with hours. Most of the time. Flexibility is the name of the game.
  • Prioritize. Choose meetings with care and eliminate unnecessary work. Take time-outs from checking email to have core focused work time.
  • Set an example—be a pioneer for others that want to do the same.
  • Keep track of accomplishments. Be proud of what you do.
  • Be organized—set aside time Friday afternoons to check off work tasks done and plan key tasks for the coming week.
  • Manage your own expectations. Own the position and don’t let imposter syndrome sneak up on you.
  • Meet with your manager and set goals and career plans, just as you did in a full-time position.
  • Be open with your manager when things aren’t working as seamlessly as you feel they should.
  • Until this becomes commonplace (one can hope!), contribute to an annual retrospective for senior leadership. Detail what worked and what didn’t, as well as what mechanisms have been put in place to make it work more effectively. Voice your appreciation.
  • Acknowledge your strengths and what you bring to the team.
Tips for Managers of Part-Time Employees
  • Ensure full support exists all the way up the management chain.
  • Implement agile work methods for your team (part-time employees can simply take on fewer points than full-time employees).
  • Encourage transparency with team, project manager. Everyone else is on a need-to-know basis.
  • Set “core” team hours for meetings.
  • Hold regular 1:1 between manager and employees (all employees).
  • Work with employee to provide together an annual retrospective to leadership and revisit what’s working and what’s not.
  • Manage expectations of others, and also keep an eye on your own, that they are in-line with the reduced schedule.
  • Ensure career track options are the same as full-time employees.
  • Be a pioneer for managers to implement similar programs, within your company and externally.

It Takes A Village

Maybe you, too, can be a pioneer in your own company and cultivate part-time positions for yourself or others. I hope that together we can each make a little improvement in this area, so that, before we know it, part-time tech work is commonplace and those who work in tech roles part-time are supported and valued just as any full-time employee is.

Do you want to make sure the transition to a part-time role works for you financially? Please reach out to me at meg@flowfp.com or schedule a free consultation.

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Disclaimer: This article is provided for general information and illustration purposes only. Nothing contained in the material constitutes tax advice, a recommendation for purchase or sale of any security, or investment advisory services. I encourage you to consult a financial planner, accountant, and/or legal counsel for advice specific to your situation. Reproduction of this material is prohibited without written permission from Meg Bartelt, and all rights are reserved. Read the full Disclaimer.

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