This weekend we were invited out to the countryside for a friend's birthday party. The weather was perfect, with a stunning blue and white Bavarian sky over lush green rolling hills as far as you could see, dotted by the odd red roof or light brown cow. All day long we sipped wine, grilled everything you can grill, ate frozen Snickers and downed all manner of ecclectic side dishes.
In between the more serious business of eating we talked about everything under the sun. We were a youngish (think new 30), urban, professional group from all walks of business and it was a great chance to compare notes on the workplace with other working moms.
One discussion stood out for me because it dichotomized two sides of a debate that I have been personally interested in since having children:
Part time employees and the role they play in modern business.
On one side of the debate was Tanja, an experienced orthopedic surgeon who has taken twice as long with her residency because she has two kids and only works part time. She feels it is unfair that her residency has been extended so long when, except for the actual hours present in the clinic where she works, she performs at the same level as her colleagues. At the end of the day, she sees the same number of patients, performs the same number of surgeries, fills out the same volume of paperwork.
'Part-time workers are the deal of the century,' she informs us. 'They cost about half what the full-time people do and they work more efficiently. When I was full-time I would take a long lunch break, chat for an hour, procrastinate before doing my paperwork, because I had plenty of time. Now I get in, check out my case load and usually grab a sandwich between cases because I know I have to leave at 3. But supervisors need to be more flexible to reap the benefits.'
Brigitta, a tall, blue eyed Austrian who seems quite friendly until someone whispers that she manages the entire pension fund of one of the world's largest companies, and then you think she can't actually be that nice, nods but disagrees.
'I think some jobs lend themselves to greater flexibility than others. Your job is a perfect example. If you're operating on someone's knee it doesn't matter if you do it in the AM or the PM, and Monday may work as well as Tuesday. But if you're working on something like ongoing negotiations, where you need to be in constant contact with the other parties and easily reachable, it's not feasible to make the other person wait or brief someone else to step in on your off days.'
Then she laughs and since this is before I know what she does for a living I see it as a friendly laugh, and maybe it is, because who says that women who are reponsible for billions of dollars in a male dominated culture can't also be genuinely nice? 'I personally hate it when I can't reach someone.'
What the heck, I laugh, too, because I'm tipsy and, I mean, who does like that?
She continues: 'Whenever I call someone in the US and get their voice mail it drives me crazy. And I know it drives the Americans crazy to call here and not be able to get straight through to the person they want to talk to because anyone in the office might pick up. Americans like voicemail better than talking to people.'
I felt this was a little off topic but it still struck me as an interesting observation.
She focuses on Tanja's situation again and offers a truce: 'Look, I'm pretty easy going about letting folks work from home, although I have plenty of colleagues that are total hardliners about that because it makes them feel out of control.'
Tanja rejoins with: 'Exactly. They feel uncomfortable. But I see that as a lack of trust.'
Brigitta: 'True, I see your point. But it's easier to work with people if they're right there.'
Tanja: 'Oh, ja, it's definitely easier, if that's all that matters.'
Brigitta (raising her wine glass at Tanja and me): Hey, if someone would offer me my current job at 80% FTE I'd jump at it!'
We drink to that. And I thought Brigitta raised a fair point about ongoing negotiations and the different levels of suitability of some jobs over others when it comes to working fewer or more flexible hours.
But bottom line, I think Tanja hit the nail on the head when she pointed out the potential economic advantage of part-time workers, if only companies could be more creative about utilizing them.
What do you think?