Part-time work is often thought of as a temporary arrangement, to be implemented when a full-time role cannot be justified and ended once the situation changes. But what if a company made it possible to build a full career by working part-time, and even to advance to leadership positions on a part-time basis?
People Matters spoke to Sabine Riedel (below left) from the Management Board of Germany-headquartered technology firm OTRS, who leads international HR strategy and is a strong advocate of flexible work structures, and OTRS's HR Director Kathrin Triebel (below right), who works part-time herself, to understand how this solution works and whether it's possible for other companies to emulate it. OTRS has a policy of granting employees part-time work or other flexible arrangements on request, and while the HR leaders have not tracked the number of part-time employees, they estimate it to be significant and includes both men and women.
Start with an open mindset
The idea of having an open mindset and flexibility was part of OTRS's culture since its founding in 2000, according to Riedel. “We wanted to give people the chance to live the life they want professionally, and that means that you have to offer different kinds of working models,” she said. “It was never restricted in any way, and we don't only offer it for mothers—even fathers or younger employees who request part-time. So, we don't have a special model, it's more about the general flexibility.”
The nature of the industry also influences this, she added. “In the IT sector, you have a lot of places to implement flexibility. For example, the developers like sometimes to work during the night, or they like to work in the early morning, stop in the afternoon, and then again work in the night."
"It's all about creating the right targets or the right goals, and monitoring them such that you can make sure that the goals are achieved. But how it is achieved is not so important. It's more about the results.”
This does come with some complications: it is critical, said the HR leaders, to ensure that goals are transparent and achievable. And for certain departments, particularly those with a high level of customer contact, the nature of the work means it can be particularly challenging to organize part-time schedules such that people are available for customers.
“We can realize part-time work within the sales team, but if there is a change then shifts have to be reorganized and it affects the whole team,” Triebel observed. “I think that if you say it's a privilege for the employee, that becomes a restricted model, but if you really see it as a part of your culture, then you can make it possible. It's a little bit more effort but it's worth it.”
Managing by results and equal treatment
“For a lot of years, it has been a fixed mindset that productivity at work is immediately connected with being present at the office,” Riedel said. “A lot of huge well-established companies in this country have always had the tools to make flexibility work, but they didn't have the trust.”
This has been the biggest hindrance to accepting successful part-time careers or other flexible models, because the ability to focus on a person's results achieved, rather than on the time they spend under a manager's eye, hinges upon trust. “If you trust someone, then when you monitor, it's for making sure that the applicant has a good feeling about what he or she wants to achieve. There must be very good communication between the employee and the superior, but not in a way where we control what everyone does every day with a tool,” Riedel pointed out.
However, the coronavirus pandemic has also forced companies to change their way of thinking, she believes, and leadership styles have improved because of it. “In former years leadership was more about control. Now it's often it's more about support, and really knowing your employees and what they need. Instead of being the superior and telling them what I want, I try to find out what they need to support them and make them achieve their goals. This is a completely different setup.”
Another, very critical aspect of enabling part-time careers is finding a way to overcome the frequently-cited issue of remote or part-time workers being disadvantaged by lack of physical presence in the office—something that is closely linked to mindset.
“It's not about valuing the time spent at work, it's the idea that if I contribute something in a limited time, that's exactly as good as if I contribute something in a full-time job,” Riedel pointed out. “I would never say 'This person is only here for three or four hours so they are not worthy to be promoted'. It must be about: does this person really want to contribute something? Is there value in what they are doing for the company? Are they serious, are they honest, are they loyal?”
Ultimately, she believes, it comes down to fair and equal treatment. “It is a fundamental cornerstone of our company culture that everyone must be treated equally, everyone has the same stances and rights, and it doesn't matter if you're working full time or part-time to achieve a certain goal,” she said.
“This is really very essential, to accept and to understand that everyone's goal in life can look different. If someone says, 'I just want to work 20 hours, my goal in life is to focus on something other than work', we don't want to judge that. This is accepting that people are different. It's about fairness for everyone, and really living the idea of equality—not only gender equality but equality in general.”
Where is the part-time model going?
The pro-flexibility culture in OTRS started because of the intense competition for talent, Riedel recounted. “We had to use a lot of creativity to convince people that OTRS was actually the right company for them,” she said. “All the flexibility and possibilities that we are offering our employees, not only in terms of part-time work but also in flexible working hours, was very well established within our company a long time before COVID. And I think this has become more and more essential, especially for the younger generation. If they see a culture with an open mindset and flexibility, you have a much better chance of convincing them.”
However, industry conditions also factor into whether this advantage is needed or not. On the one hand, Riedel pointed out, the current economic uncertainty creates a chance that company failures will lead to the market being flooded with qualified people. At that point, she said, employees will be less likely to demand flexibility as they become the ones competing for jobs. “The more people that are available, the more flexibility suffers.”
On the other hand, she also observed that competition for talent is still fairly high in Germany. “Younger employees want more flexibility and to work more part-time, and not to see work as the central part of their lives. So there will be a demand for that, and the last year has shown that it is possible to realize it,” she said. “But we are a little bit behind when it comes to company culture. The big companies especially are so process-oriented, that to change their mindset will take much longer.”