“What is the best way to work part-time?”

I have lost count how many times I have seen this question in parenting forums and asked the question by my clients. The answer can feel a little like “how long is a piece of string”. About as useful as a chocolate teapot (how many more sayings can I get into this article”?)

The perfect part-time working pattern for parents


Flexible working varies; from part-time to shorter days, condensed weeks to remote working. The key to a solid flexible working request and a comfortable work-life balance is to get the right one for YOU and your job. However, nothing beats some first-hand advice.

I proudly present the perspective of Kate; a working mum who not only balancing working part-time, but also studying part-time (and fitting in blogging too ! I still believe she has created a time machine in during her academic studies somewhere, but as yet she won’t admit where she is storing it. Until I find it, here is how to rock part-time working.

How to rock part-time working

Like many people, I juggle part-time work with parenting. I’ve got two daughters, one at school and one at nursery. My husband works full-time (from home) and I work three 5-hour days per week.

I spent seven years at university studying full-time, then worked for seven years full-time. But since I returned to work after my first maternity leave in 2011, I have worked 30 hours or fewer per week. I’ve spent most of my career in the public sector, working on higher education policy and funding for research, but I recently moved into academia and now I’m a researcher at the local university.

Over the past six years, I’ve changed job three times, returned from maternity leave three times, and varied my part-time hours and working pattern according to both work and family needs. I’ll be honest, it hasn’t all been cupcakes and rainbows, but I have learned a lot about making the best of what part-time working can offer.

So, in a quest for the holy grail of work-life balance, here are my top tips for part-time working:

1) Work Mondays
People use Mondays to ease themselves into the working week, sort out their email inboxes and plan their to-do lists. Plus, if you work Mondays, you get all the bank holidays off! I currently do a three-day week (Tuesday to Thursday) and I don’t like missing Mondays because it makes me feel as if everyone else has a had a headstart on their week! To compensate, I block out the first hour of every Tuesday morning in my calendar to give myself time to read my emails and figure out a plan of action. Not only does this give me a chance to plan my work for the week, it also provides the time and space to get my brain into gear for thinking about work stuff.

2) 4 days are better than 3
When I worked 4 days per week, I was able to get properly invested in my work and I felt like a fully functional employee, although I had to be careful not to cram a full-time role into 30 hours. For me, working 4 days a week with Wednesdays off was the best part-time arrangement I had. And it was made all the easier because my husband also worked 4 days per week with Fridays off.

But when I work 3 days per week (or less), I feel a bit left out. It’s as if there isn’t enough time for me to become intellectually absorbed in what I’m doing. And even if I can do all my work in three days, I feel there is something cultural missing: meetings and conversations happen when I’m not there, so I have to work harder to stay in the loop. On the flip side, having extra-long weekends and more time at home with my toddler is lovely. But when she starts school in 2018, I know I’ll be looking to pick up a few more hours in the office.

3) Communication, communication, communication!
I’ve had really positive feedback about my openness and honesty with colleagues and clients in respect of my part-time hours. I used to feel embarrassed about being part-time and would sort of apologise by saying things like “I only work three days a week”. But now I’m more confident about it, I’ll say “I’m in the office on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays” and I include a footnote on emails as a reminder of my working pattern. I want the people I work with to consider me a reliable and dependable co-worker, so even if I’ll be out of the office for a few days they know they’ll get a response when I return.

4) Project-manage your job
I love organising and planning! At work, I use a bullet journal and Outlook calendar to set to-do lists and carve up the time within each working day. I also make a note of school activities and family commitments in my calendar (with privacy settings on) so that colleagues can see I have non-work commitments that can’t necessarily be moved. I spend at least an hour of each week planning and setting goals, targets and deadlines. I won’t check emails on my non-work days but I do try to finish things ahead of time because I don’t have the ‘luxury’ of doing things last-minute. I have also had to become comfortable with not pursuing perfection, when good enough will be good enough!

5) Leave work at work
This one has been hard but is totally worth the effort. I work hard and take pride in doing a job well done, so a large part of me wants to demonstrate how awesome I can be above and beyond my part-time hours. But it has been important to manage expectations about work-life balance. I won’t check emails at home but occasionally I will rearrange childcare in order to attend some training or a conference on one of my non-work days. I think it’s important to separate work-time from family-time to demonstrate that I can be effective in the roles of employee and mother.

6) Non-work days
One final thought is the choice of non-working day(s). I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve always been able to set the pattern of my part-time work and choose on which days I’ll be in the office.

When I worked 4 days per week I preferred having Wednesdays off to having Fridays off. Whilst the long weekend was good, it actually felt like a bit of a slog doing 4 days in a row in the office. Whereas, with a mid-week break I felt energised for the second half of the week, could always catch up on anything that had happened on my non-work day, and I could use two days’ leave to get almost a week off!

Now, I work 3 days per week, with Mondays and Fridays at home. It’s good for managing school INSET days and for being able to join in with school activities but I have a long break away from work each week and it takes at least an hour to get my brain back into gear on a Tuesday morning.

I think my ideal pattern would be to work four 6-hour days per week. And although I’d love to have a mid-week break, I think I’d stick with Fridays at home, because they have a celebration assembly at school each week that I like to watch.

Kate Turton is a researcher and science communicator. She combines part-time working with looking after two young daughters, volunteering for the school PTA and supporting a local charity. In her spare time, she writes a blog answering the science questions that young children ask. You can follow her alter-ego ‘Simple Scimum’ on Facebook/Twitter @SScimum.

If you are currently working in a creating a flexible working request, and want to learn the tricks of the trade and increase the chances of getting a “Yes” then check out this blog!

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