How to be a part-time high flyer: Professionals are rejecting long hours – but can you work flexibly at the top?

Conventional wisdom has it that organisations need a figurehead — a leader with a single vision to inspire everyone else. The UK Green Party of England and Wales, with 53,000 members, disagrees. It appointed two “co-leaders” last year to run the party on a job-share basis: Caroline Lucas (its only MP) and Jonathan Bartley.

Some commentators dismissed the move as a political stunt, arguing this important job could not be done part-time. Mr Bartley said it proved the party was “not bound by tradition”.

Indeed, data published last week by consultancy Timewise suggest part-time working, including job shares, is increasingly acceptable for managers. Of the 5.1m high earners in the UK (defined as those earning more than £40,000 a year), 15.1 per cent — or 773,000 employees — are part-time. This is slightly higher than a couple of years ago, when it was 14.6 per cent, with more companies saying they would welcome flexible working to attract the right talent.

Timewise helps to promote the benefits of part-time working and offers a recruitment service. It uses data provided by the Office for National Statistics, the UK government agency, to support its findings. Karen Mattison, joint chief executive of Timewise, says: “There is an assumption that any kind of proper job you can’t do on a part-time basis. This is just not true. It’s been happening the whole time, but under the radar.”

The financial crisis of 2008, Ms Mattison says, changed the landscape for part-time working. Around the world employees agreed to cut their hours to keep their jobs.

In Japan, the trend started in the early 1990s as a response to the country’s financial crisis and has continued. Part-time workers went from 18 per cent of the workforce in 2006 to 23 per cent in 2015, according to OECD figures.

While the part-time trend may have been exaggerated by the global recession, however, this has left a positive legacy for higher earners, the data suggest. Flexible arrangements, as much as high salaries, are now a major factor in luring good workers, says Maggie Stilwell, managing partner for talent at professional services firm EY, which surveys its 230,000 staff annually.

Its data show that 84 per cent of its workforce enjoy some element of flexibility — even if that is just arriving late one morning to accommodate a school run. “More than half [of staff] we surveyed said flexible working was the key factor in joining EY,” she says. “We are in a war for talent — that’s a really attractive thing we can put in our shop window.”

Arpad Cseh, 41, is an executive director at UBS Asset Management, based in London. Last year he asked to work part-time so that he could pursue a personal goal, setting up a global warming mitigation project.

Mr Cseh works two-and-a-half days at UBS, and the rest of his working week meeting non-governmental organisations as he attempts to change how governments trade carbon emission offsets.

Juggling two jobs is difficult. “There is an expectation — and it’s not unreasonable — that I check my emails once a day,” he says. Mr Cseh admits he suffers from a problem that afflicts part-time workers: doing more than his contracted hours. “It’s not easy. Or rather it’s very easy to do more than 50 per cent — it’s all about balancing that. You have to be quite disciplined with your time.”

But he suggests the flexibility shown by his bosses at UBS has cemented his loyalty to the bank. “I am very grateful for it, and they know it.”

One way to avoid the need to check in with the office when you are at home is to share a job. Alix Ainsley, 41, and Charlotte Cherry, 36, are joint group operations HR directors at Lloyds Banking Group. “In the early days we tended to try to be helpful, but we weren’t,” says Ms Cherry. “If you are still online on those non-working days, not only is it confusing to the organisation, but is also counter to why you are doing it.”

Alix Ainsley and Charlotte Cherry share a job at Lloyds Banking Group. Both say their arrangement has not been a barrier to career progression. They joined Lloyds as a team, having shared a job at General Electric for three years. “In fact, it has been an enabler for me to take on a job that I am not sure I would have tackled on my own,” says Ms Ainsley. “The confidence the partnership generates is powerful.”

While some companies may be open to longstanding workers moving to flexible hours, walking into a job as a part-time employee or as part of a job share is unusual, say experts. Ashley Whipman, director at Robert Half, a recruitment consultancy, says: “I very rarely see senior roles come through in the finance and accounting arena.”

Raj Tulsiani, chief executive of Green Park, an executive search firm, says too often part-time work involves a salary falling further than hours: “Companies expect five days’ work delivered in fewer days. A lot of organisations’ leadership are not particularly mature about this.”

Some high-flyers make it work, but the reality is that many do not. This needs to change, according to Ms Mattison, who says: “The new generation of workers really want some autonomy over when and where they work.”

Making it work

Liz Davidson, 38, and Ian Shepherd, 36, are co-deputy directors at the UK Department for International Trade, senior Whitehall civil servants. Mr Shepherd works on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, while Ms Davidson works on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

They say the job share is a success because they work as a team, rather than splitting duties. Ms Davidson says: “You have to take joint responsibility for things that go wrong. If your partner mucks up something on a Friday, and you are in on a Monday, you are the person who has to sort it out. You have to do it as a united front — ‘We did this’, not ‘they did this’.”

She and Mr Shepherd conduct two handovers every week: on Wednesdays, when both are in the office, and either on Friday night or Sunday evening by phone when they discuss the memo the other has written.

Mr Shepherd says writing the handover memo is not a chore. “I’ve found the act of handing a job over to the other person forces you to reflect on what you have done, and gives you a moment to check if you are heading in the right direction. “If you have a difficult issue, it’s a good time to think it through.”

Written by Harry Wallop, this article was originally published in the Financial Times on 2 February 2017: