Karen Mattison: part-time directors are ‘the shape of things to come’

part-time directors Karen Mattison

Karen Mattison, co-founder of Timewise, has championed the advantages of skilled part-time staff. Now, she says, we need to put the same value on part-time directors

It is Friday and, as usual for Karen Mattison, co-founder of Timewise, she’s enjoying a day off. As director of the Timewise Foundation – which operates a consultancy, jobs board and recruitment service – Mattison is the messiah of part-time working. And she practises what she preaches, working a four-day week. “The extra free time gives me the balance that makes the rest of my life work,” she says.

Thousands of UK businesses could be missing out on top talent by not hiring part-time directors and senior executives, she says. “In modern work, you should judge people by the best talent and skills they bring to your business rather than by how many hours they sit there.”

Trouble is, in the world of senior work, part-time has an image problem. Companies may hustle to sign up millions of low-paid workers on cost-saving zero hours contracts, but when it comes to the top team, they look for nothing less than total commitment. And they believe the best measure of that is the number of hours an executive spends in the office. They’re wrong, says Mattison.

Part-time suffers from a “negative brand” because directors think it means only taking part responsibility, she says. Wrong, again. “I don’t judge my achievements at work by how many hours I put in. It’s more about what I deliver.”

And it is clear that part-timers are on the march. Figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal there are 650,000 part-time workers in the higher-rate tax bracket. These people are not freelancers or consultants, but people with P45s and their own office coffee mug. But some are shy about letting it be known too widely.

Mattison points to Timewise research of 300 top part-timers, which found many of them prefer to fly under the radar. “Lots of them don’t want to make too much noise about it because they think being part-time can make them seem less ambitious and weaker candidates for promotion,” says Mattison.

She believes this attitude has to change if Britain is to harness its most creative talent. Three years ago, Mattison and Timewise co-founder Emma Stewart started the Power Part-Time List to showcase top managers who work flexibly but deliver the goods. They found a growing number of top part-timers who are not only willing to stick their heads above the parapet but also sing the praises of part-time working.

They include executives such as Julie Bramham, marketing director of the £2bn-sales Smirnoff and Captain Morgan brands at drinks company Diageo. She heads a 15-person team and manages the work of nine agencies during a four-day week.

Graham Poole heads the human resources function at lottery company Camelot Global by working a nine-day fortnight. Poole has helped several of his team adopt flexible working patterns.

Jo Moffatt, chief engineer in oil and gas company Atkins, heads a team of 70 while working a three-day week. She has worked part-time for 12 years and held demanding posts, including delivery manager during the 2012 London Olympics. Being part-time hasn’t stopped her climbing the promotion tree.

Mattison believes that while these high-fliers may currently be the exception, they’re actually ahead of the pack. Last year, a Timewise survey of 1,161 workers found 70 per cent would like to work flexibly in the future.

“There are a million and one reasons why: some want to spend more time with their children, others have hobbies to pursue, some want to build a portfolio career, others still may have health concerns about a full-time job,” she says. “Instead of dismissing part-time applicants as second best, companies should think more closely about how to hire the talent and skills they need to grow in the future. For a small or medium-sized business, hiring a part-timer can be a great way to access the kind of top talent the firm couldn’t afford full-time.”

By way of illustration, Mattison gives the example of a smaller company in need of a finance director. The top-level professional skills and strategic thinking a high-flier brings won’t take five days a week. So why not hire part-time and bring in a book-keeper to handle the day-to-day work? “It’s a clever way to make the best of your staff budget,” she says.

“Often, the key to making a part-time arrangement work is to think about how to redesign the job so it meets both the executive’s and the company’s objectives,” she continues. “That means thinking about issues such as how far the job is a back-office or client-facing one, how the remuneration, including bonus arrangements, will be structured, and how the part-timer will be judged on outcomes. The arrangement has to work for the business. If you agree to something which just works for the employee, you’re setting everyone up to fail.”

Mattison says that directors need to start thinking about their companies in a different way. In the past, they’ve designed jobs around a five-day week. Now they need to tailor them more to the work-life balance of the people who fill those key positions at the top.

“I’m not suggesting that every role in every business can or should be flexible,” says Mattison. “But when you start to think about roles in a different way, it can stimulate more creative thought about the business as a whole.”

Companies planning to grow could find the need for more office space an excellent stimulus to this kind of thinking. More part-time working could both attract the talent, and also alleviate the pressure to expand into bigger – and more expensive – premises.

Mattison first plugged into the part-time debate when she struggled to find a flexible job while raising young children. Today, her Timewise businesses employ 33 people, around half of them part-time.

She draws a distinction between junior part-timers, who switch off completely when they’re out of the office, and more senior staff, who may think about office issues or take urgent calls even on days off. So part-time doesn’t mean less commitment.

But the Timewise experience proves that success in part-time working starts with leadership from the top. Directors need to have open and honest conversations with executives who are considering part-time working, says Mattison.

“Part-time works well when there is a leadership that is open to new ways of working and a culture which is really supportive.”

Even on a Friday.

For more information on the Timewise Foundation, visit 
Karen Mattison is a member of IoD London



1992 Graduates from Oxford University in psychology; becomes communications manager at One Plus One

1995 Appointed a director of Mental Health Media

2002 Freelance business consultant: assignments include Department of Health, Mental Health Foundation, One Parent Families

2005 Founds Women Like Us, finding part-time work for talented women

2012 Sets up the Timewise Foundation, including jobs board Timewise Jobs and agency Timewise Recruitment

About author

Peter Bartram

Peter Bartram

Peter Bartram is probably the longest serving contributor to Director, having first written for the magazine in 1977. He is a prolific freelance journalist with more than 4,000 feature articles published in dozens of newspapers and magazines. He has written 21 books, including biography, current affairs and how-to titles, and has recently launched a crime mystery website.

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