Until fairly recently, it’s been unusual for a man who cared about his career to reduce his working hours for family reasons. Historically, it has tended to be women who end up juggling part-time work with family responsibilities, with real & perceived barriers (even stigma) discouraging men from considering it.
So it’s fair to say my decision way back in 2007 to start working part-time surprised some people. But it’s one of the best decisions I ever made. And in the decade plus since then, I’ve been fortunate to continue my 4 day working week in a variety of different roles: freelance strategy consultant; co-founder at a startup; strategy & marketing manager at Envato; and now at SEEK in the strategy team and as general manager of the verification startup Certsy.
In this article, I’d like to share my personal experience to help encourage more men (and their employers!) to consider flexible work options. I firmly believe that everyone stands to benefit — men, women, kids, business & society — if we can break down traditional barriers and get more men working part-time.
What’s been the response at work?
By and large, I’ve found that most people at work have responded to my 4 day working week with a combination of surprise, good-natured envy, and support. That said, there was early skepticism when I first applied for part-time roles.
Getting started part-time is arguably the hard bit. I first moved to 4 days a week when I was self-employed, so there was no boss to convince. Discipline was required to make the habit stick, but I could make the decision and do it.
However, in 2012 I faced the challenge of convincing employers of the merits of part-time work when I sold my business and looked for a 4 day a week professional job. Despite a solid resume and qualifications, the response was lukewarm. Eventually, one recruiter confided off the record I was “higher risk” to recommend to clients given part-time work and recent self-employment.
After much frustration, I stopped mentioning my desire to work part-time in my applications so that gatekeepers couldn’t screen me out. Although I’d rather be upfront, I decided to wait until a firm decided they wanted me and then negotiate (accepting some risk I may have to go back to 5 days a week).
Soon after I narrowly missed out on a role at Envato and the CEO suggested I consider a different position in a smaller part of their business. However, this other role had a lower salary budget. After meeting the general manager and learning more, I was keen on the opportunity but rather than just accepting less money, I plucked up the courage to ask if I could do 4 days instead.
I can still vividly recall the phone call. First, there was a moment of silence, while various thoughts and fears ran through my head. Then he laughed! This was totally unexpected, as were his next words: “We thought you might say that”. It turned out that 4 days was the perfect creative solution — they got access to my skills within a smaller budget and I kept working part-time.
These days I find that many colleagues outside my immediate team don’t even realize I’m not working full-time until I actually tell them. Personally, I quite like this response because it supports my arguments about the effectiveness and creativity benefits of part-time work.
That said, I‘m increasingly coming to the view (hence this article) that it’s important to make it more widely known that I work 4 days in order to help normalize and enable flexible work options for others.
This is a common reaction from other guys. It turns out many of them would like to work 4 days too, but are concerned about the impact on their career, identity or finances … or weren’t even aware it was a real option for them.
One guy I worked with did the math and concluded it was a great deal: “So you get paid 20% less but get 50% more weekend! Where do I sign up?” However, despite that initial enthusiasm, he still hasn’t made the change…
These discussions showed me that there are still strong social norms and other barriers for men that make it hard in practice to forego income for unpaid time with kids, even though it’s an appealing idea in theory for many.
In recent years I’ve had a very supportive response from my employers and colleagues at SEEK and Envato, but I suspect my experience is not (yet) the norm in all situations. Both companies are progressive, the roles are hard to fill, and I have a good track record of delivering results while part-time. That said, times are changing and more companies are embracing flexible work.
When exploring my current role at SEEK, I put on the front of my resume that I work 4 days/week and raised the topic in my first interview with my future boss. My logic now is that if a potential employer is put off by a guy working part-time, then quite simply it isn’t a place where I would want to work.
The good news is that working part-time made no difference whatsoever to securing my initial role or to being promoted at SEEK — in fact, I now lead a fast growing in-house startup of over 15 people while still working 4 days a week. And naturally I’m very supportive of part-timers in my team.
The business case for working 4 days a week
In my experience, working part-time has a wide range of benefits —for my employers, for my family, and for me personally. Some may be obvious, others perhaps less so, but hopefully they spark some useful conversations.
- Creativity. I often find that my best work-related ideas happen on my day off when I’m not actively thinking about work. Perhaps I’m hanging out with the kids, doing chores round the house, reading books, or going for a bike ride … but in the background my subconscious is processing things, spotting patterns, and coming up with insights. As I’ve written before, there’s real power in deep-diving into a topic (at work) and then backing off to let the ideas germinate (by doing something totally different).
- Prioritization: Due to working four days a week and having kid-related responsibilities, I don’t have the option of simply throwing more hours at a work situation. This constraint forces me to think more deeply about identifying the critical few things that really make a difference so I can focus my limited time on them. As a result, I’ve found I often make the same actual progress in 4 days as I would in 5 regular days. I don’t try to squeeze more hours into fewer days, but instead aim to be more effective by tackling tough decisions sooner and avoiding low-impact “busy work”.
- Equal opportunity: Until it’s perfectly normal for men to choose different work arrangements for family reasons, it’s unlikely that women will fully close the gender gap at work². Why? (1) Today’s dads set a powerful example for their own sons and daughters about how things should be. (2) Couples have a limited ability to devote more time to a woman’s career if the man lacks flexibility in his own arrangements. (3) Society often has an implicit devaluation of “unpaid” work, and one powerful way to address this is for more men to choose extra family time over paid work.
- Values in action: It’s encouraging to see more companies say they value workplace flexibility and gender equality, but words alone have limited value. Employees inevitably assess an organization’s values based on what they see in practice — e.g. who gets promoted, what behaviour is encouraged and what is overlooked, and whether actions consistently line up with words. So it’s a powerful symbol and credible evidence that an organization “walks the talk” when people of any gender can work part-time in senior roles while continuing to grow and succeed career-wise.
- Connecting more with my kids: Extra time together has helped us build a stronger bond. It often seems to be in the course of basic daily logistics (e.g. school drop-off and pick-up) that the kids open up about their ideas, emotions, stories, and reflections. It’s been helpful to have time to listen and engage when they want to, without worrying about the next thing on my schedule. I still get the typical kid-to-dad responses¹, but overall I think we’re building a strong, warm relationship. As we head into the teenage years, hopefully this helps us navigate the inevitable challenges.
- More equal parenting: I’ve found there’s a massive difference between “helping out” and “being solely responsible” — and it essentially comes down to whether or not you’re taking mental accountability. It was only once I started sharing primary care with my wife that I started to properly appreciate this difference. It truly became crystal clear when she went to China for 10 days while I stayed here and tried to juggle work with 3 kids! That perspective and empathy now informs how I try to parent when we’re both around, and hopefully takes some of the mental load off my wife.
- Broadening the kids’ perspective: My kids have grown up having 1 day with me, 2 with mum, and 2 at childcare. As a result, I think they have a more flexible mental model of how the world works — i.e. there’s no “one right way” to do things. They also see it as normal for mum and dad to share housework and paid work. My hope is that this encourages them all — my daughters and my son — to pursue whatever balance of career and family is right for them, and to have the courage to do things differently.
- Satisfaction with life: It’s easy to say that family is a top priority but for me the real test of your values is what you are willing to sacrifice in order to live up to them. By working part-time, I give up 20% of my potential earnings in order to spend my time in a way that better aligns with my stated values. This alignment — and the knowledge of what I’ve chosen to give up to enable it —makes me feel more satisfied with how I live my life. And recent research on 100,000+ people suggests the happiest are those who spend money to buy time, rather than just focusing on earning more.
- Personal resilience: Kids live in the present (especially when they’re little), enjoying the simple joys that adults ignore or take for granted. Spending time with them lets me share those joys, keeps me grounded, and reminds me about what matters most in life. I’ve found this perspective to be an effective antidote to work-related stress, and — when coupled with the satisfaction of living life more in line with my values — tends to make me more resilient at work and elsewhere in life.
- Recharge time: I have a tendency to focus intensely when I’m at work, which in the past I’ve sometimes found hard to sustain over the long term. Although parenting young kids is often busy and tiring, I found it was so different to my work activities that it actually seemed to help me mentally recharge. And now that my kids are all at school during the day, I’m using that time to exercise, volunteer at school, and learn new things …all of which energizes me to be able to give my best at work and at home.
The future of work is flexible…
In the past year, the NZ insurance company Perpetual Guardian hit global headlines by making a four day week the new normal. They did this after a robust trial showed higher productivity and less stress. Of course, they’re not the first — other companies have embraced flexible work for years, including education startup Treehouse having a four day week since 2010. And the folks at Basecamp (formerly known as 37Signals) have written best-selling books on their remote work practices and their ideas on reworking work.
Nonetheless, it’s still early days for flexible work in general, and particularly for dads choosing to work part-time for family reasons. But it seems likely that greater workplace flexibility will be an important part of the future of work.
My own anecdotal experience illustrates the shift over the past 11+ years. In an earlier role, I was literally the only guy at the company working 4 days. I also stood out at university and business school alumni events. But in recent years, it’s been far less unusual. Here at SEEK, for example, I know several other guys working four days or taking long stints of primary carer leave, and there’s a genuine commitment to offering a flexible and inclusive workforce.
All up, I’m extremely grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to work 4 days a week for the last decade. By sharing my story here, I hope that I can make some small contribution by encouraging other dads to explore more flexible work arrangements and strike the right balance of work and family for them.
How can you help?
If you’ve found this article useful or thought-provoking, please take a moment to consider what you can do to help foster a more flexible workplace for all:
- If you’re already working flexibly, think about how you can make this fact more widely known and help normalize the practice for others.
- If you’re considering making the change, take heart and explore the idea seriously. When you’re ready, discuss it with your partner and employer.
- If you’re an employer or colleague of someone interested in working more flexibly, then keep an open mind, consider the benefits, and be supportive.
- And why not share this article with others and start a conversation!
- Once I asked one of my kids: “If a dad says something, and no-one is around to hear him, is he still wrong?”, and somehow all three of my kids (despite none of them looking like they were listening) immediately and in unison said “Yes, of course he is”, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.
- As per my earlier article ‘What are you missing’, it’s important not to frame a problem too narrowly. It may be counter-intuitive but paternity leave was found to be the #1 initiative leading to a higher percentage of women in senior roles. For details, see “Paternity Leave: The Key to Female Leadership”