Study Finds You Can Work Less And Get Promoted, Too

January 22, 1999

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Conventional wisdom aside, choosing to work less than full-time doesn't have to put the brakes on your career. In a study by researchers from Purdue University and McGill University in Montreal, 35 percent of the employees studied were promoted while choosing to work reduced hours. The findings also indicated that managers were able to work less than full-time with a high rate of success.

"Even though many of them were already high-level employees, most felt that their careers could continue to progress, despite the fact that they had chosen to cut back their hours at work," says Shelley MacDermid, associate professor of child development and family studies and director of the Purdue Center for Families.

Bosses seemed to support that assertion, indicating that the employees could work less and still progress in the company up to a certain level. "We are very impressed by the number of firms that see custom work arrangements not only as ways to accommodate valued employees, but also as opportunities to create new kinds of careers," MacDermid says.

The two-year study looked at 87 corporate professionals and managers working less than full-time in 45 diverse firms across the United States and Canada. Thirty-seven of the part-time employees were high-level professionals without direct subordinates, and 50 were managers supervising at least three workers.

The participants chose to work less and had their wages reduced proportionately. Most were women, and their reasons for working less varied. They typically were paid 60 percent to 80 percent of their full-time salary. They reduced their work week on average by about 18 hours, down from the 50 to 60 hours many had worked before.

Ninety-one percent were happier and more satisfied with the balance between work and home as a result of working less. Only 10 percent planned to return to full-time within the next three years.

"The high rate of success was surprising, especially among managers," says Mary Dean Lee, a management professor at McGill. She says it has been assumed that mangers will find it impossible to customize and contain their jobs, because they are responsible for the work of a group of subordinates.

"Another surprise," MacDermid says, "was that the keys to success didn't appear to lie in working for the right kind of company or at any particular job."

The one critical success factor, seen in almost every successful case, was a supportive boss. Seventy percent of the employees' supervisors supported the arrangements, even if they had inherited them from a previous supervisor.

Those who made reduced hours work for them were likely to be highly skilled and talented individuals with a strong track record. They were described as very organized; capable of working with a great deal of focus and concentration; and accomplishing more than most in a short amount of time. In addition, they were very flexible in responding to work demands and were viewed as highly committed and hard-working. For the most part, they maintained or actually improved their individual performance while working fewer hours.

The study collected data from bosses, co-workers and spouses. In all, more than 500 men and women shared their views on the reduced-work arrangements.

Most co-workers did not find the arrangements a problem. "Approximately half of all co-workers we interviewed were supportive of their peers' reduced-work arrangement," MacDermid says. "Twenty-five percent of the co-workers were not supportive."

She says co-worker complaints included having "more on their plates" because a peer was working less and "getting stuck covering" for others during emergencies. She says that when co-workers have concerns, those problems should be acknowledged and managed.

Three out of four spouses viewed the work arrangements as a success for their family, and more than half said their relationship as a couple had improved, because their spouse was happier.

The study was funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation of New York and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

The Purdue Center for Families works to strengthen families and to nurture their members. Through outreach, teaching and research, it encourages collaborations among academic disciplines, professionals, policy makers, corporations and community organizations regarding the family's vital role in society.

Shelley MacDermid, 765-494- 6026; home, 765-477-9651; e-mail,

Annie Julien, publicist, Faculty of Management, McGill University, 514-398-4030; e-mail,

Purdue University

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