Can you be part-time and powerful?

Employees looking at watches

A part-time executive has been hired to revive Marks and Spencer's clothing lines. Is this proof that you can work reduced hours and still be successful?

It has long been received wisdom that getting ahead at work is largely based on long hours and a willingness to put the boss's whims before your personal life.

Tales abound of city workers and ambitious junior lawyers who put in 18 and 20 hour days to prove their mettle.

It is inconceivable that a candidate on The Apprentice could hope to impress Sir Alan while asking for Friday afternoon off.

And for those at the top there can also be lots of time at work. Jack Dorsey of Twitter and mobile payments venture Square once said that he put in eight to 10 hours a day at each of those businesses - effectively two working days in one. Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer reportedly worked up to 130 hours a week while at Google.

But the necessity of long hours appears to have been challenged by two recent appointments.

After reporting disappointing sales, Marks and Spencer has hired a new style director to turn things round. Belinda Earl will work two days a week.

The myth of working from home

Yahoo has banned its staff from "remote" working. After years of many predicting working from home as the future for everybody, why is it not the norm?

People in the West are constantly bombarded by news about technology that makes it easier to communicate with the office. Those in manufacturing or retail might always have to be present, but in an age when so many work in offices, why can't they have their office space at home?

Google's chief financial officer Patrick Pichette has said when the company is asked how many people telecommute, their answer is "as few as possible".

"There is something magical about sharing meals. There is something magical about spending the time together, about noodling on ideas, about asking at the computer 'What do you think of this?'"

And a new vice president at Facebook, Nicola Mendelsohn, will be their head of Europe, Middle East and Africa. She is expected to work four days a week - as she currently does as head of advertising agency Karmarama.

It could be taken as a sign that you do not always need to be at work to be an executive.

For Prof Cary Cooper, an expert in organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School, the benefits of part-time working are obvious.

"The evidence is clear that when people are able to work flexibly you get the most out of them. There is more job satisfaction and they are more productive," he says.

Juliet Kinsman, editor-in-chief of boutique travel specialists Mr & Mrs Smith, is among those with a big job, part-time.

"It's about letting go of being Miss Control Freak," says Kinsman - who since having her daughter five years ago works two days a week in the office and then a minimum one day extra. Before then, she had a seven-day working week.

"It's very easy in modern-day life to let a culture develop which is too competitive and about who spends longer at their desk."

Juliet Kinsman Juliet Kinsman, editor-in-chief of Mr and Mrs Smith hotel guides

For Kinsman, going part-time, meant she was able to "step back and do what I do best, which is being creative".

"The worry is that you are either stuck to your career and then a bad parent, or a really good parent and your career is neglected."

But, she says, being a parent has made her a better employee.

"Your priorities shift, they are realigned in a more healthy way."

Another part-timer is Chris Hobbs, partner and deputy head of compliance at legal practice Norton Rose.

He has worked three days in the office and one at home for about four years.

Start Quote

Chris Hobbs

I'm more productive - I get more time to just sit and think about stuff, and concentrate”

End Quote Chris Hobbs

Hobbs took the decision to cut his hours after his family located to Bristol.

"I was coming up [to London] on a Monday and going back Friday evening for two to three years. I was becoming the quintessential grumpy old man.

"So I went to management and said 'I need to change this'. The reaction was 'yes, fine, we'll see what we can do'."

Reducing his hours made him a better worker, he says.

"I'm much happier and more productive. I get more time to just sit and think about stuff, and concentrate. In the office you get interrupted.

It has meant learning to delegate: "The more responsibility you give people the more they take it up and run with it," he says of his team.

But, Hobbs says, there is still a stigma attached to working reduced hours.

"It's also been suggested that it was easier for me because I was in a senior position," he says. "I have some sympathy with that comment."

There are other part-time workers in positions of power. Bill Gates now works part-time at Microsoft. Mothercare has a part-time chairman and Dixons a four day a week chief executive.

Until last month former foreign secretary David Miliband was vice-chairman and a non-executive director at Sunderland football club. It was claimed that he earned £125,000 for a 15 day year.

But the reality of part-time work is far less glamorous for the majority of people, says the TUC policy adviser Paul Sellers.

"In recent years, since we have had an economic crisis, we have seen part-time work rising and underemployment."

Many of the eight million people now in part-time work actually want more hours to increase their earnings but struggle to find them, he says.

And even for those who want to work part-time, actually getting promoted can be difficult.

"There's been a reluctance to open up positions at the level of senior management," he says.

Women are worst affected because they are more likely to work shorter hours.

"We need to move away from a rigid culture of long hours at the top, so that it better reflects what people want at work," says Sellers.

Cooper says there is a certain type of manager - often older and male - who see flexible working as a sign that a person isn't committed. It can lead to the perception that they're not doing "a proper job" and affect their promotion prospects.

However, Cooper says the question needs to be "do they deliver?". People need to be judged not on how many hours they put in at the office, but on what they get done.

"I think we are losing a lot of good talent, particularly women, who we wouldn't be if organisations were much more flexible.

"Hopefully as more women push up the glass ceiling and get in senior roles they will see the benefits of working flexibly."

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