Reflecting on her experiences of working part-time with two small children, Associate Professor Sara Shaw advises garnering support from your team, working flexibly and being realistic about what can be achieved is key to making it work.
This is the first in a series of case-studies of part-time working in the department, put together by the Family Friendly (including returning carers) and Part-Time Staff Better Workplace Group. The case-studies accompany the department's guidelines on part-time working.
What is your part-time working pattern?
I work four days a week, currently Monday to Thursday. I tend to start work early, around 8.15am, as this means that I can then be home at a reasonable time to spend time with my two kids. I find that I then catch up with emails some evenings. Every now and then, when its really busy or there’s a tight deadline, I do some extra work on a Friday.
I originally worked Tuesday to Friday but found that I struggled to stay on top of emails - so many people fire off emails on a Monday that I found I was swamped by the time I got into work on a Tuesday. A Monday to Thursday pattern works much better for me.
Why did you decide to work part-time?
I worked full-time for over 20 years. In 2014 I had twin daughters and went back to work part-time after maternity leave (then at Queen Mary University of London). I wanted to spend time with my children, and working part-time allowed me to do that. I’ve also been lucky enough to work with a people (both at QMUL and Oxford) who are very open to flexible working and I have been able to shift hours around, also change some of the things I do so that I travel less and am more office-based. Knowing that made it a lot easier to come back to work four days a week.
What things did you consider when deciding whether or not to work part-time?
My main consideration was my children and how to organise my work so that I could spend as much time as possible with them when they are little. After that it was really about juggling hours I need to work with availability of childcare – a constant and on-going process of juggling and negotiation!
I also shifted from bringing in my own research funding to working on someone else's programme of research. That gave me the space I needed to be both mother and academic but meant a different kind of career in those early years.
The other thing that came up was career pathway. I made a decision when the children were born that I would not be able to develop my academic career while the children were really small. I thought four days per week was doable, but only if I significantly reduced the amount of off-site work I did (including fieldwork, off-site meetings, conferences/events) and reduced some of the ‘softer’ areas of work I used to do (e.g. peer review of journal papers, mentoring). I also shifted from bringing in my own research funding to working on someone else's programme of research. That gave me the space I needed to be both mother and academic but meant a different kind of career in those early years. Now my children are a little older and at school that’s changed. I still work four days a week but have more space to write bids. I have spent much more time bringing in grant income, as well as developing a more strategic leadership role (both within and beyond the department).
What are the advantages and disadvantages of working part-time?
I get to spend time with my children. But part-time work is never finished – I often have to do more than my hours (in my own time), and I struggle to find time for thinking and writing.
How do you feel working part-time has affected your career development?
Since the kids have gone to school I’ve begun to focus on others things, including writing and generating income, and I feel I am back on career track again.
See above – I made a conscious decision when returning to work after maternity leave that I would not be able to develop my career while my children were pre-school (just keep it ticking along instead). Actually I did OK, but I did put a lot of things on hold in order to spend less time on work-related stuff. Since the kids have gone to school I’ve begun to focus on others things, including writing and generating income, and I feel I am back on career track again. I was delighted to be promoted to Associate Professor earlier this year.
What things do you think have or might facilitate your career development as a part-time worker?
There are two different things here for me: things that facilitate (or hinder) me doing my job part-time and things that facilitate (or hinder) my career development as a part-time worker. Sometimes they might be related, but not always.
While the needs of my children come first, the flexibility in hours and support from the nursery was key for me in getting my part-time working hours in. Basically it gave me more freedom to get on with my work
On the former: coming to Oxford in December 2015, I was pleasantly surprised to then find that there are good childcare facilities and a salary sacrifice scheme. Both made a big difference, as did the initial support offered by the department. The HR Manager initially pointed me to information about childcare and then also, once she found out that we had twins and might struggle to get two places, discussed the possibility of using the department’s two sponsored places for the university nurseries scheme. I did that and secured places for both children at Woodstock Road nursery shortly after we moved house. This meant not only subsidised places, but also childcare facilities that reflected working hours. I dropped the children off at 8am and was in the office by 8.15am. And provision is all year (not just term time). While the needs of my children come first, the flexibility in hours and support from the nursery was key for me in getting my part-time working hours in. Basically it gave me more freedom to get on with my work. And I guess that in some way contributes to my career development. That’s changed slightly as the children have started school – again the flexibility in working hours has made a big difference.
My experience is that my line manager values my contribution and so gives me the flexibility to ensure that I can deliver and that I stay. That works for everyone.
On the second point, the support from my line manager has been crucial in enabling me to work part-time (in the way that works for me and my kids, as well as for work) and continue to develop my career. I have significant flexibility and the onus is on delivery, not process or presence (i.e. being physically at my desk). This means that I sometimes work short days and make up the time in the evening or weekends, start really early and leave really early, be there when the children are not well and make up the time and so on. My experience is that my line manager values my contribution and so gives me the flexibility to ensure that I can deliver and that I stay. That works for everyone. We have also worked together for many years and know each other well which probably helps. And we also have an excellent team in our unit – and, I think, a flat hierarchy – which means other people pitch in and cover (and vice versa).
The other thing that’s helped is a shift to more desk-based work. I oversee case studies, rather than go out and do the fieldwork, I lead/contribute to research bids and I am now co-director of the unit. This is very different from my full-time post which was characterised by much more fieldwork, many more external meetings and generally a lot of travel. While I have made a decision about not doing the same level of travel, my line manager has been open to re-shaping my job/roles to accommodate that and has been supportive of my being in the office more.
What is the top piece of advice you would give to someone considering working part-time?
Be clear about what you can and can't do in the time that you have, ensure as much flexibility as possible and get support from line manager and collaborators/wider team. That’s three, sorry!
What to read next
31 January 2019
While writing up her thesis, Postdoctoral Researcher Nikki Newhouse gives us an insight into her experience of working part-time, advising the use of career development resources and highlighting the importance of maintaining social relationships with colleagues.